Review: Kafka on the Shore, Barbican

“It’s like some weird avant-garde play”

Tumbling dreamily into the world of Japanese magic realism, Yukio Ninagawa’s spectacular production of Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore makes a sadly too-short stop at the Barbican, which is a real shame at it is one of the more visually striking plays of the year. Tsukasa Nakagoshi’s design of transparent boxes is the ideal vehicle for the swirling twin narratives of the story, in all their freeform strangeness as talking cats, murdered sculptors, Johnnie Walker himself, former pop stars, women’s toilet campaigners and much more beside come into play in Frank Galati’s adaptation.

On the one hand there’s 15 year old Kafka Tamura who runs away from his overbearing father and their Tokyo home with his imaginary friend Crow, ever dreaming of the mother who abandoned him as a young boy. And on the other there’s Satoru Nakata, an elderly gentleman who was afflicted by a childhood incident which severely stunted his development but left him able to communicate with cats. Stretching across Japan and delving effortlessly in and out of both fantastical realms and real life, their dream-like journeys slowly coalesce into one bewitching reverie.

Manipulated by a team of seemingly tireless stagehands (deservedly getting their own curtain call), the swirl of the perspex containers is an audacious feat but an expertly calibrated one too, Ninagawa and Nakagoshi condensing locations into elemental simplicity but also retaining more unusual aspects such as the singer encased like a museum artefact or a little person wordlessly riding a tricycle. The stagecraft is endlessly inventive but it does have a tendency to merge into an indistinct whole, longueurs creating lulls in which one’s own dreams might come a-calling. 

The strength of the acting ensures we’re never marooned aimlessly in this world though. Nino Furuhata’s Kafka and Katsumi Kiba’s Nakata invest real pathos into their performances so that the dilemmas that they face are felt keenly, aided beautifully by Naohito Fujiki’s Oshima and Tsutomu Takahashi’s Hoshino respectively, as two very different buddy stories emerge. Rie Miyazawa’s work as the inscrutable Miss Saeki is just gorgeous and mention should also be made of Mutsukiko Doi, Mame Yamada and Yukio Tsukamoto as a trio of strangely compelling cats. 

Marching very much to the beat of its own drum, Ninagawa defies notions of theatrical logic as we might see them and even if it isn’t always completely successful, it is most thrilling to watch.

Running time: 3 hours (with interval)
Booking until 30th May

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