Revived 30 years after its original creation, this stunning production of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play feels like a series of intricate paintings come to life.
Transposed to 16th century Japan – a country of Samurai and Ninja, of honor and valor, the swansong of this critically acclaimed 1985 production of Macbeth by the late Yukio Ninagawa still packs the emotional and dramatic punch needed to leave a lasting impression on the audience. The production feels like a series of moving tableux, paintings created by its director to tell the story of Mabeth’s epic rise and fall at the hands of fate. This show is scored to a mix of buddhist chanting and western classical music, and uses evocative and atmospheric lighting to great effect. All of this in underscored by the slowly falling petals of the Japanese cherry blossom – a key Japanese emblem representing the fragile and fleeting nature of life and a perfect metaphor for Macbeth’s journey.
Seen through the lens of two old crones, perhaps representing the chorus or perhaps embodiment’s of fate, Shakespeare’s tragic tale of power and overarching ambition takes place on a stage hidden behind giant Shoji paper screens. These screens are used to great effect in order to help hide and reveal action at key moments. At times we view the action through the back lit transparent screen – we see the weird sisters re-imagined as male Kabuki style performers, or their visions springing to life as apparitions of fate hidden behind a screen. At other times the paper screens are made opaque, shrinking the huge stage for intimate moments between Macbeth (Masachika Ichimura) and Lady Macbeth (Yuko Tanaka) to plot and scheme. And at times the paper screens pull open to reveal the vast openness of a the Japanese court, or a battlefield strewn with cherry blossoms and a blood red moon.
The performances are grand and operatic in nature, combining elements of traditional Japanese Kabuki style theatricality and British traditions of melodrama. At times these feel almost comically over-done, however it could also be argued that this comes more from the Japanese tradition of performance, and simply appears that way to a western audience. The two leads performances, while also epic in scale, still contained enough moments of grounded introspection to be totally believable without tipping the scale into the realms of caricature. The fight scenes are choreographed excellently, a combination of stylized martial arts and masterful storytelling. Rather than just using the fight scenes to move the action on, Ninagawa uses these scenes to truly demonstrate the characters personalities. Macbeth’s arrogance and feeling of invulnerability in battle is completely shattered when he realizes the truth about Macduff’s birth and his fate.
At times the production does feel a little dated. This is mainly due to the music chosen. Barber’s Adagio for Strings features heavily, and having been used so frequently in popular culture for comic affect it has lost some of its ability to truly move the audience. Despite being Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, the production runs at nearly three hours long. This allows Ninagawa time and space to create truly breathtaking images on his stage, but does feel a little testing on the audience. Shakespeare is often not the easiest to follow and with the added language barrier meaning you are constantly switching from the action to the subtitles, it can feel like a slog.
Having said that, the production was so beautifully staged, with bold lighting effects, imaginative sets and evocative music it was often enough to ignore the subtitles for a while and simply enjoy the beauty of what was unfolding on stage. The story of Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s simpler narratives, meaning it was possible to follow the main thrust of the action without having to rely on reading every single word as they appeared on screen. This legendary production is stunning in it’s staging, and for and is a must see production for any Shakespeare fan keen on seeing a bold and imaginative international interpretation of one of the Bard’s classics.
Ninagawa’s Macbeth is at Theatre Royal Plymouth until 14th October, and is next on in the Esplanade Theatre Singapore. For more info click here