Thursday, 5 October 2017

Theatre review: Macbeth (Ninagawa Company)

The much-loved Japanese theatre director Yukio Ninagawa died last year, not long after reviving his signature 1987 production of Macbeth, which was the one that made his name in this country. So it was a natural choice of tribute to him to tour that production internationally again. An all-Japanese cast is led by Masachika Ichimura as Macbeth, the Scottish nobleman instrumental in crushing a rebellion, and showered with honours for it. But a supernatural vision has promised him even more power, and once he shares his ambitions with his wife (Yuko Tanaka) he commits himself to speeding up the process – by murdering the king, framing the heirs, and assuming the throne himself. But ill-gotten power is hard to hold on to, and as armies build to depose him, his paranoia leads him back to the witches, and more deliberately misleading prophecies.

In 2015 Ninagawa brought a Hamlet to the Barbican which I quite liked, but found essentially a Western-style production that just happened to be Japanese. By contrast Macbeth, though Yushi Odashima’s translation is (as far as I can tell from it being translated back to English on the surtitles) pretty faithful to Shakespeare, is Japanese in much more than just the cast’s nationality.


Instead of Western-influenced naturalism the acting style here is much more mannered and stylised, showing the influence of traditional Japanese theatre like Kabuki. The production is built around its spectacular visuals, creating a number of tableaux that could be paintings. It’s been nicknamed “the cherry-blossom Macbeth,” and Ninagawa turns that quintessentially Japanese image into a symbol of death, petals raining over battles and littering the stage throughout.


I did occasionally have a niggling feeling that this is a bit of a Disneyfied version of Japan that distils it into a series of postcards, but there’s no denying that Kappa Senoh’s set is spectacular, and Jusabaro Tsujimura’s costumes are a major part of the evening – the way she glides and sweeps around in Lady Macbeth’s flowing kimonos is what defines Tanaka’s performance. And there’s also some memorable ideas that could only have come out of a Japanese aesthetic – notably the three witches as geisha drag queens, and Banquo’s (Kazunaga Tsuji) ghost appearing as a haunted suit of armour. The system of bowing to show respect also tells a story – subtle differences in the way the court bows to Duncan (Tetsuro Sagawa) and then Macbeth when he becomes king, seem to show the difference between genuine respect and fear. And then there’s the downright eccentric – the show opens with two old women pulling back the shutters, who then spend the rest of the evening sitting either side of the stage having their dinner, and later praying and reacting in despair to some of the more violent moments.


The declamatory acting style is one that I find gets monotonous after a while, but it is capable of emotional moments that almost take you by surprise: Kaita Oishi gives one of the most moving renditions of Macduff finding out about his family’s deaths that I’ve seen. The repeated use of the same recorded piece of music is a problem – no matter how much money has clearly been lavished on a show, that will always give it a whiff of the amateurish to me. But it’s not enough to stop the show being most memorable for being atmospheric, inventive, and surprisingly fast-paced for something so steeped in ritual.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare in a version by Yushi Odashima is booking until the 8th of October at the Barbican Theatre (returns only.)

Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Sakura Hutari, Takahiro Watanabe, Seigo Kiyota.

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