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Antony and Cleopatra (2011) (Ninagawa, 2011)

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Antony and Cleopatra (2011)

Antony and Cleopatra, dir. Yukio Ninagawa (2011), the Sainokuni Shakespeare Company

Performed in Japanese at the Ion Keshōhin Theater Brava, Osaka, 28 October 2011

Performed in Japanese with Korean subtitles at the LG Arts Center, Seoul, 26 November 2011


Essay by Professor Daniel Gallimore (peer reviewed)

Unlike Shakespeare’s other tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra has seldom been performed in the Japanese theatre, due partly to the difficulty of staging the play’s numerous scene changes but most likely to the difficulty of making a compelling tragedy out of the tragicomic elements of a middle-aged love affair. In 2011, Yukio Ninagawa directed the play as the twenty-fourth in his series of Shakespeare productions (initiated in 1998), which premièred at the Sai no Kuni Saitama Arts Theatre near Tokyo before touring to the cities of Fukuoka and Osaka, and finally Seoul. The most striking feature of Ninagawa’s production was the casting of the Japanese-Korean actress Kei Aran, previously a star of the Takarazuka Revue, the all-female musical theatre troupe founded in 1914 and based near Osaka in western Japan. With Antony played by the Tokyoite Kōtarō Yoshida, these regional and ethnic differences effectively underscored the cultural differences at the heart of Shakespeare’s tragedy, which Ninagawa interpreted in terms of a profound tragic exasperation.


Japanese Shakespeare productions sometimes surprise one into realizing the obvious, which in the case of Yukio Ninagawa’s recent staging of Antony and Cleopatra was that the play is actually a cat and dog fight. The Roman scenes were dominated by a great white wolf on a plinth suckling Romulus and Remus, and the Egyptian ones by a sphinx, its nose intact; these would be wheeled in and out at high speed to indicate the change of place. The wolf had been inherited from Ninagawa’s acclaimed production of Titus Andronicus (2004), when the same Kōtarō Yoshida who played Antony shone as Titus, but whereas in 2004 the rather grotesque image of two little boys feeding themselves at the teats of the primeval beast added to the mood of menace and horror, in the Antony and Cleopatra, the same image defined a faint sense of excess and self-disgust that underscored the tragic elements of Shakespeare’s happiest tragedy. The lupine grotesquerie shifted our sympathies toward the Egyptian camp, where Cleopatra orchestrated her victory of style over substance, and a downsized sphinx sat tranquil and enigmatic until the final scenes at the monument, when it was replaced by Anubis, canine god of the underworld.

Ninagawa’s production adopted another dichotomy in its casting of Kōtarō Yoshida as Antony and Kei Aran as Cleopatra. Yoshida is a staunch Shakespearean with a voice of considerable range, who has previously played Othello for Ninagawa as well as Titus. His Antony had plenty of “sound and fury” but could be sweet and playful; it was evident that Yoshida saw the man as someone who wanted to enjoy life while it lasted. Antony’s virility is sometimes contrasted with the callow Octavius and decrepit Lepidus, but one striking feature of this production was the manly, and indeed swarthily bearded Hiroyuki Ikeuchi who appeared as Octavius Caesar. Ikeuchi’s Octavius knew full well that Antony’s libido would get the better of him, and one was also aware of Octavius’ own sexual curiosity: that – Antony out of the way – he would follow the example of great-uncle Julius, and make Cleopatra his strumpet as well.

Kei Aran deserves recognition for embracing a role that has been seen too little on the Japanese stage. While all the other tragedies were initially staged in the 1910s and 1920s, Antony and Cleopatra was not performed until 1968, and since then only ten times: pace Dryden and Johnson, too many scene changes in the central acts and too much generic ambiguity. Ninagawa’s strategy was to treat the play as a series of surprises, with Aran contributing her background as a third-generation Japanese-Korean from the Kansai area in western Japan, who in 1991 became one of very few “foreigners” to be named top otokoyaku, or specialist in male roles, at the prestigious all-female Takarazuka Revue near Osaka.

As is common in the Japanese theatre, Ninagawa’s actors are invited to contribute programme notes on their approach to their parts, and in hers Aran expressed her delight that the production would be transferring to Seoul the following month, a first for Ninagawa, who has previously taken his productions on British tours. It is not unusual for Takarazuka actresses to enter the mainstream theatre after retiring from Takarazuka in their thirties, notably Rei Asami who in 2005 was named best actress by the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper for her Tamora in Ninagawa’s Titus. If a little more fragile than Asami in appearance, Aran’s Cleopatra had the strength and versatility one would associate with an experienced otokoyaku, but if the Takarazuka style tends by its nature to be kitsch and coy, one could also see how Yoshida and Aran lacked the intimacy of other theatrical duos. They tried to be physical, and yet, for example, when Cleopatra fled with her ships at the Battle of Actium, the enraged Yoshida landed her a punch that stopped short by a good ten centimetres.

As an idea, however, the casting of a Tokyoite Antony against a Japanese-Korean from western Japan was an interesting one, especially if one considers the claims of Egypt and Greece (where the Ptolemy family originated) to be origins of civilization, and the equivalent influence of both Korea and Kansai on Japan’s ancient culture. Yoshida’s Antony was a man of a certain age, rediscovering himself, and the reality that, initially seen chasing Cleopatra around the sphinx, he was already a highly experienced soldier and politician with an imagination the size of Asia Minor gave both his errors and accidents and the production as a whole their lasting pathos.

Ninagawa’s productions are invariably visual experiences, with incidental music added to communicate a tone that is lacking (one suspects) in a modern Japanese translation, but I was struck by the way that the uniquely exasperated style of delivery Yoshida adopted as Antony realized the tide was turning against him in the fourth act succeeded in setting the tone for the remainder, infecting the inflections also of a young, red-haired Enobarbus (Jun Hashimoto). There was nothing restrained about this manner of speaking, which accorded convincingly with the production’s Orientalism, as one realized from Yoshida’s strangled tones that Antony had taken a step too far in indulging the Asiatic values (in particular, the oratory) that the historical Mark Antony had learnt in his youth.

The dichotomy between the plain Attic and elaborate Asiatic styles is represented by the rapid scene changes that have historically challenged directors. Ninagawa’s solution was a white oblong box, tapered slightly on both sides that with the aid of projected stills could be transformed from a Roman garden to an Egyptian tomb and so on. A row of square windows along the top of the left-hand flat allowed for the illusion of external daylight, while in the scene on board Sextus Pompey’s galley, round holes opened to let in the oars for the sailors to row.

The banquet scene that followed included a moment of extraordinary drama in what was otherwise a production in Ninagawa’s usual narrative style, when Lepidus (Yoshisada Sakaguchi), the oldest and weakest of the triumvirs, was being urged to sit and drink. Lepidus staggered upstage, and for a single moment it seemed as if he might have been about to say something important, something indeed that could have altered the course of history, before the goading of the others got the better of him. This dramatic moment ironically prefaced the more overt suggestion made later in the scene by Menas (Hiroki Okawa) to Pompey (Eiji Yokota) that they cut the throats of the three drunken triumvirs.

The perspectival effect of the tapered box served also to reinforce a basic dramatic tension between the front and rear of the stage that promised well for Cleopatra’s suicide tableau, although as it turned out the scene seemed to be played mainly for laughs. In its context of high tragedy, the Clown’s parting line “Yes, forsooth. I wish you joy o’th’ worm.” (5.2.274) suggests both an outsider’s view of an apparently disreputable femme fatale and a pride in his maudlin trade. It must also be one of the more challenging lines that Ninagawa’s translator Kazuko Matsuoka has had to translate, since the Japanese word for “worm” could never mean “snake”, which leaves one with hebi for “snake”, a creature that has positive connotations in the Chinese zodiac. Nevertheless, a wizened Tatsumi Aoyama as the Clown delivered the line with a gruff humour that suggested he himself wouldn’t have minded spending a little more time with this Cleopatra: Hai, dewa. Sono hebi wo otanoshimi kudasai. (“Well then, have fun with the snake.”). Ninagawa also had fun with the snake, a black and white striped creation of two metres in extent, which having done its work on Cleopatra, smooched off stage, drawn by invisible strings. In fact, contrary to popular belief, the asp or Egyptian cobra is of a similar length, although his one seemed neither scary nor erotic.

As with the snakes and the massive projection of a guidebook image from the tombs of the pharaohs, size has been a distinct feature of Ninagawa’s recent productions, just as falling objects were of his early ones. Such tricks distract the audience’s attention away from the potential realism of the drama and towards Ninagawa’s own narrative, although as props and stage designs, they can also appear in such detail as to appear tacky because they are so obviously not the real thing, or in other words as no more than signs of their inauthenticity, which diminishes the production as a whole. Three-dimensional objects such as the wolf and the sphinx can be made effective through their interaction with what is happening on stage but the pharaohs on the wall belonged more to the museum than to the tone of tragic frustration that this production otherwise succeeded in conveying.


Daniel Gallimore

School of Humanities, Kwansei Gakuin University, Nishinomiya, Japan
2-10-18-1-E Nigawa-Kita, Takarazuka-shi, Hyogo-ken 665-0061 Japan

Antony and Cleopatra (2011)

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