I Am Legend

Published on 26 October 2017

Photos: (Left) Ninagawa Company & (Right) Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay

The late great theatre director Yukio Ninagawa didn’t try to fit or even break the mould — he made his own. 

By Jo Tan

In the international theatre scene, Yukio Ninagawa was a legend, the late Japanese theatre director receiving, during his career, the Medal with Purple Ribbon and the Order of Culture in Japan, an Olivier Award nomination and even the title of a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Yet his laureled career almost didn’t come to pass as he’d originally planned to be a painter. But after he failed the entrance examination for the Tokyo University of the Arts, he joined the celebrated theatre company Gekidan Seihai as a trainee actor, and focused on acting for over a decade. Then, in 1968, as the social unrest and student protests then erupting around the world seemed to pass by Japan, his response was to turn to directing. He formed an agitational group known as Contemporary People’s Theatre.

His lack of formal directorial training didn’t deter him. Instead, he wrote ‘Ninagawa Tensai’ (‘Ninagawa Genius’) on a nameplate which he hung on his apartment door, to force himself to live up to this self-declaration. He devoured films and books to teach himself the art of stage directing.

Over the decades, Ninagawa made waves throughout the Eastern and Western theatre world. He often melded the two by inserting Japanese art forms such as Noh and Kabuki into his productions of European classics, principally Shakespeare and Greek tragedy. Conversely, he blended Western traditions and actors such as the late Alan Rickman into his stagings of great Japanese standards.

His goal was to shake up institutions that might otherwise have become antiquated, striving to rid Japanese theatre of what he called museum acting. In particular, he felt that Noh had been over-protected from innovation and evolution.

Ninagawa’s explorations produced fantastic works and eye-popping images. His Medea climaxed with its titular character soaring through the night sky in a dragon-winged chariot, while his Tempest opened with a naturalistic vessel sinking under a maelstrom of lights, sheets and ropes. No one watching a Ninagawa show could deny his visual genius — except, perhaps, Ninagawa himself, who directed eight different versions of Hamlet because he kept feeling he was missing something in each.

These days, his interpretations have become classics themselves. His productions tour the globe, though he died last year. In fact, over thirty years after its premiere, his Macbeth — set in a 16th-century samurai world dominated by warring chieftains — comes to Singapore this month as part of a world tour.

In every way, Ninagawa’s legendary drive for perfection is still very much alive. Says Masachika Ichimura, who stars in the titular role, “We always have a portrait of Ninagawa-san hanging in our dressing room. It isn’t one of him smiling. Instead, he looks at you with this ‘You think you did a good job?’ sort of judging expression. And it’s really great because when I come back from a performance, I will look at him and say ‘Yes, I can still do much better. I will try my best again tomorrow.’”

Ninagawa Macbeth is showing at Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay from 23-25 November. Tickets available at www.esplanade.com

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