That Kazumi Shimodate chose to set his production of Hamlet in Tohoku at the end of the Edo era is not such a stretch of the imagination as it might at first appear.
The original Hamlet was set in Denmark at the time of civic unrest and royal espionage not dissimilar from the north/south/international conflict facing the shogun in
Japan that affected the Tohoku area in 1868. Both versions employ real historical facts to create fiction.
There is a respect for and deep knowledge of historical content in this completely unique and stunning production of Hamlet that gives it a solid and sustained Shakespearian authenticity despite the transposition of names and places. This is a phenomenal achievement. Minutely synchronised by a director who evidently knows his subject in great detail and a very talented cast that never tire, this is a production that brings a famous story to Tohoku and sets it down in the heart of Japanese history for a new audience and a new life.
The story itself and Hamlet's personal battle as a soldier, son, lover and friend coming to terms with death and revenge are universal, timeless themes that are adhered to faithfully in this script and are as powerful and gripping in this setting as they are in the original. The Tohoku dialect throughout, although at times hard to understand, adds a charm and a musical lilt to the language not unlike the charm found in the original old Shakespearian English. Once your ears have acclimatised to the rendering of the character names in Tohoku dialect thus; Hamlet is Tenma Hamure,with the traditional Japanese placing of the family name first, Ophelia is Sanada Eiriya, Claudius is Croudo, Horatio is Horei and so on- the story unfolds more easily.
This cultural crossover is managed precisely, from the costume (haori hakama and kimono for the royals)to the metaphor (watch out for regional variations). The body language is totally in keeping for the most part with the rigour of Japanese high society etiquette and hierarchy. Hamlet's Mother's gentle handwringing for example is a culturally appropriate rendition of her heart's anguish, the court jesters have a bolder and louder style of appearance and language,-and so on...
Faithful to themes and storyline, this production also carries plenty of memorably original moments. There is a wonderful song and dance scene that sets the whole stage alight with joy and laughter. The dance is later adapted as a finale.There is the captivating presence of Hamlet's dead Father encased in transit to the other world- set central back stage and illuminated from above-that re-appears magically. The stage set is overall very simple. Atmosphere is created instead by the actor's motion and words. Props are few (some flowers, the skull...) and are not really needed. There is plenty of humour, both subtle and laugh-out-loud and the closing scene somehow leaves us with a picture of hope in the midst of this terrible tragedy.
This is an unforgettable rendition of Hamlet. The longest and perhaps most famous of Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet has always left it's audience with plenty to ponder. This production goes farther. It challenges the ownership of Shakespeare's stories. In relocating the plot and characters to Tohoku, Shimodate and his team have made Hamlet immediately more accessible to a Japanese audience. They have also created a brand new vision of Shakespeare for all audiences. A fascinating and carefully knitted script it is -but this production owes it's strength and magic to a highly energetic and totally unselfconscious cast driven so by their director and production team.