Year of Shakespeare: Cymbeline at the Barbican

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  1. For a British audience, the great absence in Ninagawa’s Shakespeare is language. Surtitles strive, distractingly, to make up the deficiency, but a Japanese-language production must stand or fall on spectacle and strength of performance.
  2. Paul_Edmondson May 31, 8:03am via HootSuite Youkio Ninagawa #Cymbeline #BarbicanCentre - full of hope & a poetic, romantic design. Also old-fashioned & underscored with Bach. #WSF2012
  3. Things begin rather intriguingly. On entering the theatre, you find the actors on stage apparently in their dressing rooms, preparing for the performance. The moment feels unexpectedly modern – reminiscent of the Dutch director Ivo van Hove, whose six-hour epic Roman Tragedies (which visited the Barbican three years ago) invited audiences to become part of the action by allowing them to wander across the set, even grab a drink. But it is perhaps a reflection of the amount of money at Ninagawa's disposal that the idea of actors performing a play turns out not to be something that actually drives the production, but simply a neat visual trick.
  4. Surtitling Shakespeare is often problematic – too much text – but the version used here proves an odd combination of the poetic and the terse, like an overdone Reader’s Digest condensed text. Both narrative momentum and engagement are present in generous measure, but ultimately it rather feels as if, like Jupiter on his giant eagle in the deus ex machina scene, we are skimming over the dramatic landscape rather than digging into it.
  5. Ninagawa locates the Royal family’s reunion under a single pine, changing the text’s cedar to echo the single tree left standing after last year’s tsunami. It puts a real gloss on the final chink of optimism. In March, a year on, there were still more than 3,000 missing persons in Japan. As the clouds clear, the very absurd improbability of Cymbeline’s plot serves to increase the hopefulness of the final reunion.
  6. In his programme notes, Ninagawa admits to fearing that he doesn’t understand Shakespeare’s culture. Certainly, he’s created several moments of obscure symbology. One is the replica of Rome’s famous Lupa Capitolina, the bronze she-wolf who suckles Romulus and Remus. It fits the narrative, sort-of, but spoils Tsukasa Nakagoshi’s otherwise stunningly minimal set design. Most scenes employ no more than an arrangement of walls to suggest a space, or flat drapes with images so graphically simple that they’re almost abstract. Luckily, both Byzantine plotting and the big bronze dog are defeated by Ninagawa’s masterful simplicity. 
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