No holds Bard
The Royal Shakespeare Company was never like this. Hamlet writhes elegantly on the ground screaming in mental anguish, while ghostly figures wail mournfully. Richly coloured mosaic projections flutter over the stage and electronic sounds emanate from strategically placed speakers. Apart from a few choice lines projected onto a screen, there's very little of the Bard's text present - Kenji Kawarasaki, the director of Japan's Company East experimental theatre group, has translated it into dance and movement.
This unusual version of Hamlet had its world premiere recently at the La MaMa Theatre in New York's East Village and will head home for its local opening at Tokyo's Theatre Samusa in April.
'There are a lot of ways to interpret Hamlet,' says Kawarasaki, tucked away in La MaMa's looming theatre space the morning after the premiere, which was warmly received.
'It's a complex work. Obviously, there's the theme of indecision. But that's not what interests me about the character. What I find fascinating is the suffering that he endures - and the desire for revenge that results from his pain.
'I think that revenge is the only way that Hamlet can quell his pain. All intelligent beings feel suffering. It's a universal feeling. So that has become the most important part of Hamletfor me.'
The actor who portrays the pain and suffering on stage is Hiroshi Jin, the co-founder of Company East. Jin, who both acts and dances, began his career in musicals and revues. He co-founded Company East in 1996 out of a desire to do something more serious. His portrayal of Hamlet is nuanced and impassioned, although it certainly contains a lot of wailing and moaning.
'With my Hamlet, I'm trying to connect with the audience's experience of sorrow, suffering and survival,' Jin says. 'That has been the ultimate quest during my many years as an actor. I want to express the universality of sorrow and suffering - the pain that we all must go through.'
Shakespeare is wide and deep enough to withstand all kinds of interpretations. But surely Shakespeare without text is like Beethoven without music or Picasso without paint? According to Kawarasaki, the text is there in his version - it's just been subsumed into the movement and dance.
'I knew the text very well before I embarked on this adaptation,' he says. 'I made sure that I understood it very deeply. I worked hard to discover Hamlet's internal suffering. Once I had done that, I didn't find it too hard to move from Shakespeare's words to the choreography.'
Jin followed the same process. 'To start with, I worked from the original play,' he says. 'I read and reread it. The next step was to understand what the director wanted from me in terms of the movement and dance. I had to merge the two - the original text and the director's intentions - into my performance.
'The director wanted me to express the spirituality of the character. So I used Shakespeare's text as a way to find that - as a way to discover Hamlet's inner life.'
Shakespearean tragedies seem to appeal to the Japanese. Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and Ran (King Lear) are both fuelled by a dark, unrelenting bitterness. But Kawarasaki says the attraction is not culturally specific. 'I think it's just that we all suffer, and that's why we reach for those emotions in Shakespeare.
'It's in Greek tragedy, too. The Greek classics are about killing your own child and going into battle knowing you will certainly die. Why do we suffer? Why do we kill? Why do we cause each other pain? Those are natural questions to try and answer.'
The mention of Greek tragedy is no coincidence. Classical Greek tragedies have had a great influence on Company East. The company's staging is sparse and the emphasis on pathos is typically Greek. Its first production was Euripides' Medea. This was performed near the ancient Greek city of Sparta.
'We choreographed that, too,' says Kawarasaki. 'It was a similar process [to] the Shakespeare. We performed it in Greece in an amphitheatre. The Greeks built bonfires out of wood, and we performed in front of them, under a bright moon. Afterwards, we got a standing ovation. We thought that it was part of their theatre culture to treat everyone nicely like that. Later, we found out that it was rare to get such a good reception. We were thrilled that they liked it so much.'
Closer to home, Kawarasaki says Noh theatre is another influence on the group. 'What we do is different, but there is no conflict. Noh stems from the spirituality and faith of Zen Buddhism. We bring the principles of Zen into our art. So Noh is very much part of what we do.
'People may wonder how Zen can really have anything to do with the theatre. But the spiritual elements certainly can influence it. As a group, we try to achieve the nothingness, the emptiness of Zen spirituality - the point where everything opens up into infinite possibilities. All of my creative energy stems from the Zen idea that there is nothingness at our core.'
Jin says that emptying himself in a Zen fashion helps him find his way into a new character.
'When you apply Zen spirituality to acting, it feels like the role, the character, is sticking itself onto you,' he says. 'I don't feel as though I'm creating the character. I feel that the character is coming to me.'
This is not an easy method for a performer because it's difficult to let go of one's ego, he says. 'Actors are egotistical by nature. I myself want to be the star, the centre of attention. Without an ego, actors cannot act, as we need to work with that diva energy.'
He says he is used to performing kabuki, and enjoys the final flourish of the 'mie', a movement in which the kabuki actor holds himself still at a high point of emotion.
'That is all 'me, me, me'. But our work here at Company East is the exact opposite of that,' says Jin.
'We can't fill ourselves with 'me, me, me' energy. We have to empty ourselves of everything. Today, that is what my work as an actor mainly consists of. I am trying to succeed at that. I want to reach that point of emptiness and humility.'