My opportunity to rub shoulders with Living National Treasures in the theatre are few. Twenty years ago I found myself sitting next to Rudolf Nureyev at a ballet in Paris, but these days it never seems to happen. I do sometimes go to the theatre with the West End Whingers, but Andrew and Phil haven't yet been formally awarded LNT status. In Japan, really famous actors such as Onoe Kikugoro VII, who played Malvolio and Feste in the production I saw last night, are designated as Living National Treasures by the government, which must be better than winning an Olivier award and sounds a lot more distinguished than sharing a common knighthood with disgraced bankers and political donors. My list of Living National Treasures would include all the obvious names -- Judi Dench, Diana Rigg, Maggie Smith, Harriet Walter, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Michael Sheen and Simon Russell Beale. Fill in the next ten yourselves. The other Japanese system I think we should adopt here forthwith is that of distinguished actors adopting hereditary stage names. Onoe Kikugoro is the seventh holder of a name that goes back the 18th century. He inherited it in 1973, having been Onoe Kikunosuke IV since 1965. Onoe Kikunosuke V was also on stage at the Barbican last night, playing Viola/Cesario and Sebastian. Are you still with me? Kenneth Branagh under this system could become Laurence Olivier II, while Patrick Stewart could be David Garrick VII. Diana Rigg could be Mrs Patrick Campbell III and Harriet Walter could be Sybil Thorndike II. I am all in favour of raising the morale and boosting the fragile egos of the acting profession (so many parts, so few Olivier awards!) and this seems an ideal way to do it. Equity might disapprove and Spotlight might find it tricky, but I think it's worth a try. Culture Secretary Andy Burnham, you can have this idea for free and make your reputation in theatreland by introducing it.
Yukio Ninagawa has been bringing his extraordinary Shakespeare productions to the UK for 20 or 30 years, and I've seen two or three of them. But I think this is the first time he has transformed Shakespeare into a Kabuki play. That means not just adopting the style and costumes, but the full deal. Does it work? Up to a point. There are some visually and aurally stunning effects in this production by Shochiku Grand Kabuki -- an opening in which three children sing a carol in Latin, a forest of cherry blossoms and a traditional Japanese garden. Ninagawa puts back what Shakespeare left out by recreating the shipwreck at the start of the story, so we see Sebastian struggling amid the waves. The Kabuki style adds a lot, but it also takes away. For a start, the play is very slow -- three and a half hours for a play that normally lasts just over two. The comic scenes lose most of their punch as Shakespeare's words are simplified for a Japanese audience. That's fair enough; what we get here is a production designed to allow a Japanese audience schooled in Kabuki tradition to approach Shakespeare, not the other way round. Kabuki (about which I no know more than I learned from the programme) is a highly formal art in which the non-comedic scenes rely on subtle movements and vocal inflections for effect. It's rather like putting Shakespeare into a Victorian drawing room, something which directors often like to do but I consider misguided. Shakespeare was the product of an unstable, freewheeling and conflicted age, not one where social structures and values were fixed. Despite the excellent performances and the exotic novelty of Kabuki, I found it hard to adjust to the slow pace of this Twelfth Night. The doubling of roles between Viola and Sebastian (which can be done quite successfully) led to a muddled final scene which lost the focus on Viola and Orsino. The unbelievably fast costume changes were spectacular, but in some respects I felt Ninagawa was choosing to neglect some of the play's most potent ingredients. Sir Toby's late-night drinking session with Sir Andrew was far too restrained, and Feste's mood-setting songs were cut. There's an erotic charge in Viola and Sebastian being dressed identically which vanishes if the same actor wears different costumes as they do in this production. The doubling of the roles of Feste and Malvolio meant that Fabian's part was upgraded and he took over the taunting of Malvolio. But there was no prison cell for Malvolio, and his final exit line ('I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you!') was cut. The lesson I took away as the audience (about one third Japanese) filed out of the Barbican theatre was that Shakespeare is indestructible; you can do anything with his plays and they still work. But I think I knew that anyway.