Fictional Encounters

Acclaimed theatre producer Thelma Holt CBE brings Yukio Ninagawa’s production of Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore to the Barbican this spring.

The extensive back catalogue of Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa (b. 1935) reads like a crash course in contemporary and classical theatre. His renowned productions of Shakespeare are numerous and varied, and there are pepperings here and there of Stoppard, Sophocles and Chekhov as well as Reginald Rose and Tennessee Williams. He is also a prolific director of European and American theatre and has a reputation as a prodigious workhorse, who often presents numerous theatrical works in one year.

His contributions to the Japanese canon are equally impressive and this year he brings a brand new production of Haruki Murakami’s bestselling novel Kafka on the Shore to the stage at the Barbican Centre in London. It’s an epic and abstract work, and it’s not easy to imagine it translating well to the theatre, but theatre producer, Thelma Holt CBE insists that fans of the book won’t be disappointed: “There is absolutely nowhere he departs from it. He does exactly on the stage what Murakami has done on the page.”

Her own love for the book, which she found “addictive” ensures that this production, which Holt has produced with Ninagawa, remains loyal to the original ideas and emotions in the story. This version is adapted for the stage by Frank Galati, a member of the Tony-Award winning Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Holt describes how beneficial it was to have Galati on hand during the process: “He’s very true. He treats the original writer with a great deal of respect and affection.” Galati wrote the adaptation in English, which then had to be translated back into Japanese, as Ninagawa’s production will be performed in Japanese with English surtitles. It’s true that some of his works have been performed in English in the past but Holt states that they like to present work in the original language. She’s been passionate about this idea for a long time now and has brought a vast number of foreign language productions over to the Britain in her long career as a producer.

The Ninagawa Company was one of the first that Holt discovered and she is responsible for their introduction to the UK. A tireless devotee of Ninagawa’s productions, she has worked with the company since 1987 and remains awed by his output: “He’s an extraordinary worker. His energy is phenomenal and very disciplined.” Her work ethic is hardly a thin one either: in 2004 she was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun for her contributions to Japanese theatre and she remains highly enthusiastic about the relevance of Japanese theatre to a British audience: “We have an enormous amount in common. The Japanese deal, as we do, in subtext. They do not speak openly.”

This is a fascinating observation and one that is supported by Ninagawa and Holt’s own relationship. Ninagawa has very limited English, yet the two have worked together successfully to produce incredible theatre for over two decades. Holt attributes this to Ninagawa’s strongly visual language: “His way of communicating is stunning.” When once asked how they can understand one another he replied: “She reads my face and I read her head.”

It is this emphasis on the visual that has helped Ninagawa’s productions play well on the British stage, despite the differences in language. Holt explains that he was a painter and still approaches theatre as one would expect a painter to: “He believes that audiences look, they don’t listen.” And although Holt considers this a fairly provocative statement, it has proved true for his productions, many of which are in the original Japanese but make use of English surtitles. “It’s a wonderful thing for me to sit at the back of the Barbican and watch an audience. They don’t use the surtitles to understand what’s happening: they use them merely as a backup.” It seems that despite the language barrier, Ninagawa is adept at speaking to a British audience. Holt agrees, “People relate to it very easily. He’s very accessible indeed.”

Part of this is undoubtedly because of the visual nature of his work and part due to the similarities between British and Japanese culture. Japanese storytelling has found a massive audience in the UK, with Murakami at the forefront of the literary field. In addition to the idea of subtext, Holt also suggests that this is because, like the Brits, the Japanese have an innate politeness at the core of their society: “Very simply, they don’t have a word for ‘no’ and we only use the word in extremis. We find other ways of saying no. Though we don’t talk about it, you recognise these things when you have them in common with other folk.” It’s this recognition that is the key to Ninagawa’s success: audience members see themselves in the humanity of the productions, the vulnerability that lies beneath the layers.

Holt talks about some of the ways she thinks Ninagawa achieves this on stage: “When a tree comes on, it doesn’t fly in and not move; it flutters because people are pushing it and it gives you the feeling that it is alive.” While many of the sets and techniques that Ninagawa uses are very dramatic and impressive, he maintains an honest attachment to the reality of the theatre, continuing to utilise stage crew and other, more human tricks to create effects. This is not to say that Ninagawa does not use incredible technology as well or demonstrate technical mastery: “The Japanese light magnificently. They know how to use all the equipment that for a long time in this country we only used in rock concerts.” She refers to the way that Ninagawa creates theatre as “that magic thing.” This is something found in Murakami’s stories as well: the transcendental moments that elevate the ordinary to something extraordinary. Holt asserts that Ninagawa, with his own, theatrical magic, captures this essence of Murakami’s work: “It is there, the magic of it.”

Nonetheless, putting Murakami’s writing on the stage seems like a challenging endeavour, but then again Thelma Holt has never been one to shy away from risk. She brought a number of non-English productions to London in the late 70s and transformed the declining success of the Roundhouse in Camden through her bold choices of programme.

It is possible that this is the same kind of trait she admires in Yukio Ninagawa as well: “He paints a picture and when he starts it isn’t complete. He doesn’t recognise the danger areas. It isn’t that he goes running into the danger areas, he doesn’t know it’s a danger area until he gets there and then he puts it right.” According to Holt, this combination of fearlessness and ability is what sets him apart from other directors: “Some people don’t know it is wrong until the show is closed. They’re in denial. He’s never in denial, never.”

The bravery and enthusiasm of these two veteran theatre makers has been well rewarded though, and this year marks the 28th year of their collaboration and Ninagawa’s 80th birthday. Kafka on the Shore is one half of the Barbican Centre’s birthday celebrations, which also include sees Ninagawa’s Hamlet return to the stage. Looking back at their relationship after so long, Holt muses that they have done a lot of interesting and peculiar work: “I find him totally accessible and, as the years have gone on, to my delight I have found that other people find him accessible.” It’s rare that a creative partnership should last so long and be so prolific: Holt and Ninagawa have created something together every year for almost 30 years now and they don’t appear to be slowing down at all. “He hasn’t finished. He hasn’t done the whole canon. He’s doing the whole lot.”

Ninagawa’s work over the decades: “Now, everything that I initially felt has been confirmed. The first play of his I ever saw I found so exciting and I had no Japanese at all.” This excitement has continued through to the present without abating and Ninagawa’s impact has been profound: “I didn’t actually know that he had changed my life and he has.” He has also achieved something that sits at the very heart of theatre and storytelling: “I mean, Ninagawa does do magic doesn’t he?” And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Kafka on the Shore, adapted from the novel by Haruki Murakami, ran at the Barbican Theatre in London from 28-30 May. Yukio Ninagawa’s production of Hamlet was also performed at the Barbican from 21-24 May. More information and tickets are available online at

Bryony Byrne