Patrick Carnegy

Masks of the Orient

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Titus Andronicus is the Shakespeare shocker of the moment. At the Globe in London the groundlings have made Page Three news by fainting away in droves as limbs are lopped and tongues excised in Lucy Bailey’s staging (which I regret I haven’t seen). In the Daily Telegraph Charles Spencer rates it the hottest, goriest ticket in town.

Arriving in Stratford-upon-Avon from Japan, Yukio Ninagawa’s extraordinary company eschews the buckets of stage blood in favour of fountains of exploding red ribbon. Ninagawa’s previous venture with the RSC — an Anglo-Japanese Lear with Nigel Hawthorne uneasily in the title role — fell between the two cultures. With Titus Ninagawa is once again at the top of the brilliant form he struck at Edinburgh in the late 1980s with Macbeth and The Tempest.

Titus is a rough and unlovely diamond on the page. It craves the kind of superbly imaginative interpretation it’s given by Ninagawa. This is what the play always needs. Not a misguided attempt to present it ‘realistically’, but an extreme stylisation, as here in a language derived from the great Japanese theatre styles of Noh, Bunraku and Kabuki.

The white-box set brings the action forwards into the auditorium; at centre-stage a replica of the famous sculpture of Romulus and Remus suckled by the wolf never lets you forget the notional Roman context. It’s exactly the right space for Ninagawa’s superb choreography of movement, which can spill out into the whole theatre or focus on the terrible figure of the maimed Lavinia finding her way through a maze of sterile white blooms. ‘Chrysanthemums and butchery’ was a famous German critic’s summation of classical Japanese theatre.

It’s with good reason that Ninagawa complains that Western actors ‘don’t have stylisation’. His own superb troupe has it in spades. The wonderful paradox is that as nurtured here it has a liberating effect on the sheerly human content of the drama. Kotaro Yoshida’s Titus has furious energy, yet can play the black jester and hold you with his growing sense of self-knowledge and a heart-rending tenderness. Never have I been so moved by Titus’s scenes with his surviving family, and most especially with his daughter Lavinia (Hitomi Manaka). Lear and Cordelia seemed just around the corner. The sheer power of the actors and the range of their verbal projection (Shun Oguri magnificent as Aaron, Rei Asami devastatingly elegant as Tamora) is in itself a mighty lesson to our native talent. I didn’t understand a word of their Japanese and yet couldn’t have felt closer to the drama in Shakespeare’s (surtitled) text. As Wilde would have said, give the play a Japanese mask and it’ll tell you the truth.

Another no less bracing tonic for The Complete Works festival has been Tim Supple’s direction of an Indian Midsummer Night’s Dream. The British Council sent him ‘from the alleys of New Delhi to the jungles outside Calcutta’ to see if he could find a cast for the play. Supple emerged with a multilingual troupe drawn from acrobats, fire-eaters, dancers, martial-arts practitioners, fortified by a sprinkling of classical actors. Multilingual? There indeed was the rub, for Supple was insistent that the Bardic text should be the heart of the thing and not just the excuse for a disparate collection of circus turns. Doubly difficult when his performers were drawn from at least seven language groups.

The wildly improbable solution is to perform partly in English and partly in the seven native languages of the cast. Thus Theseus very properly begins the play with a beautifully enunciated ‘Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour’ before continuing in his native Malayalam. Hippolyta picks up in the same way. Thereafter you never quite know what tongue you will be hearing, and after a while it really doesn’t  matter. Dramatic use of the different languages is made in the final act when the courtiers comment condescendingly in English on the rustics’ performance whose verbal element blends Bottom’s malapropisms with Indian tongues rich and strange. Okay, much of the verbal magic went missing. But, as with the Japanese Titus, in the relish and intuitive understanding of the play by actors innocent of our own tradition lay also a wondrous re-invigoration.

The staging plays thrillingly to the varied skills of the performers. The martial-arts maestro P.R. Jijoy and sensuously athletic dancer Archana Ramaswamy double Oberon/Theseus and Titania/Hippolyta, most movingly effecting their transitions between the roles. The fairies are Kipling’s excitable Bandar-log, squawking with pleasure at the coupling of their mistress with Joy Fernandes’s all too visibly sexually potent Bottom. The red love-juice procured by Ajay Kumar’s muscular Puck is roughly slapped on its recipients’ faces like sexual war-paint. The physicality of the lovers’ tussles carry as high an erotic charge as you could wish.

This was a Dream in which the urgency of what everyone wanted from everyone else couldn’t for one moment be mistook. The result is an enthralling, fast-moving performance, which always uses its sensational aerobatic effects to serve and illuminate the core meaning of the play. The production will be touring in the UK and then abroad. Catch it if you can.