Edinburgh — Interviewing through an interpreter has its problems. But if you don't happen to speak Japanese, that is the way it has to be done with Yukio Ninagawa, an extraordinary Japanese theatrical director who speaks no English. But language - theatrically speaking - is not much of a barrier to Ninagawa. For three years in succession he has brought productions in Japanese to the Edinburgh International Festival, each time with more acclaim than the last. Ninety-nine percent of the audience doesn't understand a word, but that doesn't matter at all.
Is he surprised at the success of these productions with Western audiences? The interpreter (we are cramped in a little room underneath the stage of the Scottish capital's large and cavernous Playhouse) relays my question to the master at some length. The director, a man who seems taller than he is and who has a strikingly individualistic face, also takes some time to reply. The translation, however, is brief: ``Not surprised exactly. But I am ... satisfied ... to be understood by other people.''
The plays he has brought to Edinburgh are not only in Japanese; they seem to Western audiences to be quintessentially Japanese in feel and atmosphere.
Visually spectacular, they are like Hokusai or Utamaro prints brought wildly to life: an amalgam of kimonos and moonlight and fir trees, of tremendously memorable and dramatic stage effects. There is much Japanese etiquette and ritual. Gongs and drums mingle with Western music.
And yet two of these plays in Edinburgh have been by Shakespeare and the other by Euripides: ``Macbeth'' in 1986; ``Medea'' last year; and now ``The Tempest.'' Of Ninagawa's ``Macbeth'' the critic Michael Billington wrote: ``We had almost forgotten in the West that Shakespeare could be this exciting and this beautiful.''
There were signs elsewhere in this festival that Ninagawa has indeed reminded some British directors that Shakespeare does not have to be spare and bare.
There was a particularly elaborate, imaginatively costumed, lit, and staged production of ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' brought here by the Royal Exchange Theatre of Manchester. It could justifiably be described as Ninagawan in its rich visual emphasis - though, of course, it is in English as well.
I asked Ninagawa how important Shakespeare's language was to him. ``I want to show with my direction,'' he replied, ``and with visual signs, and with music and lighting, what has been lost in meaning.... Shakespearean rhetoric is so difficult to translate into the Japanese language.... We lose a lot of things. So I try to make it understandable to Japanese audiences.''
In the process, as his popularity in Edinburgh (also in New York and London) overwhelmingly proves, he makes Shakespeare understandable - and richly enjoyable - to Western audiences too. It is a little astounding to realize - after a ``Macbeth'' of Japanese elegance and fierce passion, enacted before a Buddhist altar, with Birnam Wood as a grove of full-flowering cherry trees, or a ``Tempest'' set on the Japanese island of Sado, its magical tale of reconciliation unfolding in and around a thatched Noh stage, the ocean foaming in the background - that you haven't actually noticed the absence of Shakespeare's poetry.
The language of mime and gesture and facial expression, adapted from Kabuki drama, and even the (to Westerners) incomprehensible sounds that issue with such emotion from the actors' mouths, are amazingly communicative.
Can Ninagawa imagine a British company - the Royal Skakespeare Company for example - staging a Kabuki drama and then taking it to Japan? I expected his answer: ``It's impossible!''
Is it the Westernization of Japan that makes such cross-cultural adventures possible?
``Of course, the Japanese love a lot of things about European culture. That may be one reason we come here with Western plays. But I want to consider that our theater became universal.'' The emphasis is on the word ``universal.''
In fact, there is a tradition of staging Shakespeare in Japan that goes right back to a ``Merchant of Venice'' in 1885. Shakespeare appears in the form of Japanese cinema, commercial theater, Kabuki and Shingeki. But Ninagawa believes he is breaking different ground with his amalgams of Western and Japanese traditions. He does not treat Shakespeare as sacred, and he confesses (in his program notes for ``The Tempest'') to ``feeling quite miserable'' when he sees ``blond wigs, for example, or actors wearing doublet and hose'' in Japanese productions. He is a modern director. He wants to challenge conventional Japanese respect for Shakespeare, and even for the British productions of Shakespeare that some Japanese think of as the right and only way to do it. In an interview with Michael Billington he has said: ``We are trying to absorb from Western culture and then create by criticizing and breaking down what we have in Japanese traditional theater. We are trying to create something totally new from the debris.''
Would he describe what he is doing as a kind of ``post-modernism,'' I asked, a modern theater but based on or reviving tradition?
He doesn't, however, much like that phrase. ``I am not concerned with labels while I am directing.''
Does he feel that his productions necessarily simplify Shakespeare, having perhaps to concentrate more on the story than on the poetry? Isn't some of the complicated intricacy of Shakespeare missing?
My interpreter conveys this question to Ninagawa. It takes him a lot of words to do so. The reply, as well, takes some considerable time to put together. I wait in anticipation. Finally the interpreter says laconically (with a laugh) : ``Maybe, yes.''
The interpreter looks at his watch. ``So ... ?'' he says, very politely. Clearly our short interview is over. The interpreter apologizes, but he has someone else waiting. I quite understand, and make my way out along the corridor under the stage. Above my head the drums are warming up for the start of the evening performance.