A Different Kind of Classical Theatre:
Ryutopia’s Bold New Hamlet
Language is no barrier to grasping Ryutopia Noh Theatre Company’s (2007) harsh and dramatic portrayal of Hamlet. Japanese and foreign audiences alike are sure to leave this performance inspired by the brilliant marriage of the classical Noh style of theatre to contemporaneous forms of stage acting which, together, lend this narrative a haunting psychological reality.
While Ryutopia Noh Theatre pushes the boundaries of traditional Noh theatre by having female actors on the stage, it retains much of the classical aesthetic, such as its characteristic use of puppetry on stage. Yoshihiro Kurita’s intentional blending of cultural norms is an important and touching theme throughout the production, which is especially evident in the choice of set, where a traditional Japanese castle is used despite the play’s European setting.
Costuming within the play seems to have followed the same bill. Claudius, for example, is depicted in feudal Japanese garb while also wearing a European medieval crown. And Hamlet’s iconic black costume is represented as a mixture of traditional Japanese garb adorned with many of the flourishing details associated with Elizabethan style dress.
Much to the credit of Yoshihiro, characters in this production of Hamlet take on dynamic and original life of their own. Sinister, dark, frightening, and dramatic, Hirokazu Kohchi’s portrayal of Hamlet breaks new ground while barely moving at all. What Hamlet lacks in stage motion, however, he gains in presence and speech. Seated center stage, squarely in front of the audience, this character both literally and metaphorically dominates the dramatic space of the play, perhaps, in an effort to emphasize egotistical nature of Hamlet within his own drama. This is a portrayal of Hamlet that delves deep into the psychological aspects of the narrative and takes the audience along. From the very opening soliloquy, the viewer is transported into the disturbed world of a vengeful and brooding Hamlet.
Haruyo Yamaga opens as a strong and exciting Gertrude, and adds an entirely new dimension to the character with her bold hairstyling and dress. In mannerisms and speech, she embodies the strong-willed portrayal of queens that we could expect to see in a production of Richard III. Her downfall is brilliantly portrayed, and provides stunning dimension and depth.
Yoshihiro revisits themes utilized throughout the production in his imaginative portrayal of the madness of Ophelia (played by Machiya Misaki) by evoking puppet-like movements, an interpretation which implies the fated nature of her narrative, and her impending suicide. Both haunting and beautiful, moments like this shone brilliantly in a production that seems to focus on marrying the old and the new. A truly original and daring portrayal, Yoshihiro presents a meta-theatrical moment as the audience witnesses Ophelia’s change from actor to stage-tool, in which elements of the theatre style itself are utilized in order to reflect back on the structure of the narrative.
The climax of the production, the duel between Laertes and Hamlet is also staged using puppets. Albeit somewhat hectic, Yoshihiro’s presentation is a highly cerebral and surreal experience that is sure to impress.
Overall, this production is a highly intellectual, dramatic, and enthralling watch. Yoshihiro and his cast have expertly fashioned a cerebral adaptation to one of the world’s most well-known narratives, due in no small part perhaps, to the clash of cultures that is so prevalent in this unconventional, yet insightful performance.