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Obituary: Yukio Ninagawa

Yukio Ninagawa. Photo: Hirotaka Shimizu Yukio Ninagawa. Photo: Hirotaka Shimizu

For a generation of theatregoers, the appearances of Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa’s visually spellbinding amalgams of East and West brought an exotic Oriental colour to British stages in one memorable production after another.

By the time he reached the UK in 1985, Ninagawa was an established figure at home with a reputation for breathing new life into the classics and imbuing contemporary work with a rich, revealing immediacy, even if his beginnings were at odds with the sense of spectacle that came to dominate his later work.

Born in Kawaguchi, eastern Japan, he turned to acting after failing to gain a place at the Tokyo University of the Arts and formed his first company, the agit-prop Contemporary People’s Theatre, in 1967. He made his directing debut two years later with Kunio Shimizu’s provocative Shinjo Afururu Keihakusa. When the company folded in 1971, he formed the shortlived Cherry Blossom Company.

Invited to join the Japanese capital’s larger Toho Theatre in 1974, Ninagawa revelled in its greater resources and began to define the painterly style that would become his signature in stagings of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Euripides over the next decade.

He came to international attention in Athens in 1983 with a striking, musically rich Macbeth transposed to 16th-century samurai Japan, which he brought to Edinburgh in 1985 on his first visit to the UK.

He returned the following year with Euripides’ Medea. Staged in the open air at the Edinburgh International Festival (and seen with Macbeth at the National in 1987), it was hailed by The Stage as “drama of the highest order” and “a sensory and dramatic feast”.

Those qualities were to the fore in 1988’s multilayered The Tempest, again in Edinburgh, with actors playing Noh theatre performers rehearsing a stylised production of Shakespeare’s play.

Shakespeare was to be a touchstone for Ninagawa in his maturity. He directed more than a dozen of his plays, often returning to them for different stagings, as he did in eight productions of Hamlet. Three of these were in the UK: at the Barbican in 1998, at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, in 2004 with Michael Maloney in the title role, and at the Barbican last year. At the time of his death from pneumonia, he was in rehearsal in Tokyo for Measure for Measure.

Championed in the UK by producer Thelma Holt, Ninagawa enjoyed an increasingly high profile throughout the 1990s. He worked with British actors for the first time on Peter Barnes’ 1991 adaptation of Shimizu’s Tango at the End of Winter. Starring Alan Rickman, it premiered at the EIF and was seen in London at the
Piccadilly Theatre.

The following year, Ninagawa’s now eponymous company was the first guest to appear on the Barbican stage with a revival of The Tempest. He returned there in 1994 with Frank McGuinness’ adaptation of Peer Gynt. Set in a gaudy, noisy gaming arcade, it featured a memorable performance from Michael Sheen in the title role.

Over the next two decades, Ninagawa’s British visits focused almost exclusively on Shakespeare, including 1995’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its stone-and-sand Zen garden setting, Hamlet (1998), King Lear with Nigel Hawthorne and the Royal Shakespeare Company (1999) and Yukio Mishima’s Sotoba Komachi and Yoroboshi (2001). His Pericles at the National Theatre in 2003 was described by The Stage as “theatrical spectacle with passion, wit and narrative clarity”.

More recent stagings included Titus Andronicus (2006), Coriolanus (2007), a mesmerising kabuki-style Twelfth Night (2009), Cymbeline (2012) and Hamlet (2015), all lit up by startling poetic images unlike any created by other directors elsewhere.

He was made an honorary CBE in 2002 and awarded Japan’s Order of Culture in 2010. He is survived by his wife, the former actress Tomoko Mayama, and two daughters.

Yukio Ninagawa was born on October 15, 1935 and died on May 12, aged 80.

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