Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Yukio Ninagawa
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
If you think you have seen enough versions of Shakespeare then Yukio Ninagawa’s spectacular Macbeth is a wonderful reminder how his plays can be reinvented and resonate across different generations, and different cultures.
There seems to be some sort of spiritual fit between Japanese classical culture and Shakespeare: the tragic themes; hand to hand violence; portentous warnings about greed and ambition; the balancing of feelings of what it is to be human; the inner turmoil of the isolated and conflicted ruler. Akira Kurosawa’s early success with his own version of Macbeth in Throne of Blood brought him international notice. Ninagawa Macbeth, did the same for this director following its first staging in Edinburgh in 1985. This production has been revived to celebrate the director’s work and influence following his death last year and these two nights at Theatre Royal Plymouth are part of a world tour.
Ninagawa’s Macbeth is a feast for all the senses. The set takes the form of an enormous butsudan, usually a small table-top altar used for Buddhist worship at home. The entire staging is set beneath the vast lacquer, and richly embellished black and gold shrine. The front is at first closed off by huge sliding paper screens. At times these are fully pulled back or the back-lit action is viewed through the translucent material giving an almost detached feel to some scenes. At one time a huge folding painted screen with a traditional Japanese nature scene forms the backdrop. At other times the backdrop is a huge red sun or a cherry tree laden with blossom. The blossom a constant visual mnemonic for the transient nature and fragility of life. Throughout Ninagawa draws on musical support from both Fauré’s Requiem and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The result was reminiscent of either Buddhist monks chanting or life drifting through the air with the cherry blossom.
Of the many courses in this feast for our eyes are the clothes and make-up of the cast. Ninagawa replaces 11th Century Scotland with 16th Century Japan. Military costumes worn by nobility are heaving stylised and embellished to denote rank and family. Both Macbeths wear sumptuous, flowing kimonos, with huge square sleeves hanging to the floor, and a heavily patterned train following behind them. The wigs and makeup are all reminiscent of the many images familiar from Japanese ukiyo-e prints. The final scene in the first half sees the isolated Lord and Lady Macbeth (finely performed by Masachika Ichimura and Yuko Tanaka) hold onto each other for support as if frozen in one of those famous Floating World prints. It is a tribute to Ninagawa that at this point you really do feel sorry for them.
But it doesn’t last once the killing spree in the second half gets underway. The savage murder, appropriately carried out by ninja assassins, of Macduff’s wife and young family, sees to that. Tormented by his demons and surrounded by enemies Macbeth’s famous end draws close. Heavily ritualised fight scenes between samurai, wielding razor-sharp katana, feel a little long and, in this production, rather limply delivered, which is disappointing. But by now our senses are already so overloaded by the combined spectacle of what has gone before it is a minor issue.
This is a Japanese language production with surtitles. There is always going to be some frustration with how these distract from the performance. Many times the text appearing on screen seems to take only a few lines yet the actors talk on for minutes which can be unbalancing. In this production, the text was on two small digital screens at either side of the stage which seemed un-necessarily disruptive. The screen is away from the line of sight of the stage and with only a few lines of text viewable at a time it is necessary to look away from the action for too long and too often.
Despite these issues, this is a production not to be missed. Even if you think you have seen more than enough versions of Macbeth don’t stop until you have at least seen this one. Ninagawa’s interpretation of The Scottish Play and assimilation into Japanese culture one of the English language greatest writers should easily allow this production to be known as The Japanese Play.
Runs until 14 October 2017 then continues international tour | Image: Contributed