Who’d have expected this? Here, in the midlands of Japan, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is performed. It’s amazing to think that the year Hamlet was penned (1602, more or less) The first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu, was sewing up the borders of the island nation, persecuting Christians and and keeping Samurai wives hostage in the brand new capitol of Tokyo (Edo as it was known then). William Adams (Miura Anjin) was the only Westerner allowed to stay within the confines of the nation. An Englishman by birth, he was shipwrecked in Japan and worked his way up to Samurai without even taking a single Berlitz class. He probably had no idea who Shakespeare was, but you never know.
Meanwhile Shakespeare himself may have had some passing knowledge of the barbarian islands to the East. He knew Sir Humphrey Gilbert well, an explorer who’d had his share of run-ins with a variety of natives. In fact Shakespeare wrote “The Tempest” based on the stories of his explorer friend. But whether he knew anything of Japan specifically, I have no idea.
I suppose those who saw the play’s first 1602 performance understood the language and meaning better we modern English speakers. The language has suffered much over time, raped by the industrial revolution, colonization, wars, famines and Facebook. Here in Nagoya where Hamlet was performed subtitled in Japanese, it’s not unlikely that the Japanese audience understood the play better than the native English speakers.
But watching Hamlet is not about understanding Hamlet. It’s like Kabuki, nobody really understands it, they just go for the refreshments and the social status. So why attend a Shakespearean play in Japan? There are no refreshments, few people to impress, and the subtitles are in Japanese anyway.
Nameless Theatre, Nagoya’s English community theater, took on a real conundrum with this one. But hat’s off to them, they did it anyway. It’s not fair to say that it was nothing I’d expect to see staged at the Globe, but considering the group’s myriad limitations (lack of waiters… uh actors, lack of English speakers, lack of interest in Shakespeare, etc.) this performance was well worth the two plus hours it occupied in my life.
Director Carl Bradley seemed undaunted by these obstacles, drawing excellent performances from the expat cast. The icing–or perhaps the entire cake–was Anthony Gilmore’s performance as the Danish Prince (that’s Hamlet for those who slept through Freshman English).
The truth is, it would be a shame not to stage such an ambitious work when one has the talent available. Bradley must have known this as he planned this show. As crazy as it sounds, Hamlet in Nagoya was no mistake. It was something for us all, in this tiny community of two million souls, to be proud of.