Tairo Jo: Puppet Hamlet

Taira Jo’s Hamlet

27 February 2016 (Sat), Tokyo

A second tragedy by puppeteer Taira Jo after last month’s Medea. The performance was sold out, impressive in this theater (Ueno Bunka Kaikan, typically a concert hall). At three-and-a-half hours, including two intermissions, this is not a show for the faint hearted. This was the show’s first and only performance, part of a three-play series commissioned by the hall.

Taira again played all the characters using puppets, voices, objects and other tricks, meaning that he memorized and acted the entire super-long play (albeit in modern Japanese) – impressive in itself. The puppets for Hamlet, Ophelia and the dead Polonius were papier-mâché, while the other major characters were presented as large signboards resembling stained glass, such as Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes, and manipulated by five very busy kurogo. It was a curious approach that proved quite workable. He also acted a few of the characters without a puppet, such as Polonius (I could have done without the typical old-man walk). He is adept at shifting at an instant from character to character, voice to voice and mannerism to mannerism, often mouthing one character’s lines even as he manipulates the puppet of another. I don’t know the show well enough to know if he cut anything, but all the major incidents and speeches seemed to be there, though stripped of its poetry – it’s interesting to hear Hamlet’s speeches simply as straightforward dialogue.Taira’s energy and passion were contagious, and the plot and motivations were crystal clear throughout. He added enough variations to keep it interesting: the play-within-a-play was presented, not altogether logically but very entertainingly, as a rakugo performance; I loved the spears waved about from behind by the kurogo to indicate an army on the march; kurogo hands thrust from the wall became wall vases; and more. A few actions could be rethought, like the doves-on-sticks flown by Taira to open and close the play, a rerun of Medea that serves no evident purpose and blunts the tragedy at the end. I would also be happier if some whole sections were jettisoned altogether, as often the case with Hamlet, since the running time is way too long. Still, Taira’s performance was an undeniable tour de force.

The mood of the piece was greatly enhanced by classical pieces played beautifully by a young onstage cellist Hirata Dai (平田大), whose score and playing were both superbly attuned to the needs of the show. As the theater is after all a concert hall, the sound was spectacular. (Taira’s own miking seemed unnecessary, but he later explained that he was afraid he couldn’t be heard over the instrument in some quieter speeches.) The musician got a long solo spot toward the end that proved a highlight.

A memorable performance and a solid piece. That’s two in a row for Taira. I was hoping that he’d try a challenge other than tragedy for his final commission in the series (I suggested Cyrano), but he’s chosen Faust. I’ll be there.


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