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Yukio Ninagawa’s Macbeth, first brought to the UK in 1987, marked the beginning of director’s international reputation for transporting the classics of western drama to a Japanese setting. Three decades later, and just a year after the director’s death, the production has once again graced our shores as part of the Ninagawa company’s world tour – an international tribute to Ninagawa’s legacy and genius.

That which captured the awe of audiences exactly 30 years ago doesn’t fail to astound today, as Ninagawa ingeniously merges western and Japanese symbolism and themes.  As the shrouded-in-superstition “Scottish Play” is transferred to a 16th-centuray samurai court, the dark and sinister tragedy acquires an ornate and picturesque beauty. The samurai costumes and colourful silk kimonos bring a distinct magic to the story, as do the carefully composed mise-en-scenes, creating a spectacle that is at once pictorial and highly dramatic.

the dark and sinister tragedy acquires an ornate and picturesque beauty

The copious presence of music throughout the play also brings together western and Japanese motifs. A low resonating gong, traditionally heard in Buddhist temples, forebodes the beginning of the play, seamlessly fusing into the Christian choral singing of Faure’s Sanctus. In such a sonic landscape, the sparing use of silence becomes a powerful tool, savoured for heart wrenching scenes. Silence fills the stage as Lady Macbeth sleepwalks her way through her guilt, washing off imagined blood from her hands.

However, music is far from the only device that ushers in themes of sacrality, removing the story from the mundane world. Spirituality is present in the framing of the stage itself, taking the form of a butsudan – a traditional Japanese ancestral alter. The stage is revealed to us as the alter is opened by two hunched-over, ancient-looking women, who remain on the outskirts of the stage, watching the tragic events unfold, removed from the sacred world within. As they emerged from the audience I had the momentary impression that the movement was a frail theatre-goer, late in making her way to her seat. At times the women mourn the actions of the pompous Macbeths, their humble presence a stark contrast to the greed of the title characters.

The use of a semi-transparent screen splits up the stage, at times partly hiding the action from view, and providing a metaphor for Macbeth’s imprisonment in his own desire and madness. Perhaps the most haunting moment of the play finds Ninagawa’s three witches, menacing and leering, white-faced and green-tongued, behind the screen. The translucent silk casts them in a cold light resembling dusk, as cherry blossoms rain peacefully down. The beauty of the falling sukura (cherry blossom) brings constant movement to the stage, echoing Macbeth’s themes of the fragility and shortness of life, the onset of death.

the aspect that struck me the most was the incredible physicality of the actor’s performances

While the aesthetic elements of Ninagawa’s Macbeth can overwhelm and possibly become the focal point of the experience, the aspect that struck me the most was the incredible physicality of the actor’s performances. Here again we witness a fusion of traditions, as the actors channel modern, realist acting through the traditional, movement based discipline of Noh theatre (no easy trope, as actor Yuko Tanaka (Lady Macbeth) has previously commented).

The actors engage their whole bodies, moving with strictness and formality. Lady Macbeth’s cunning is embodied as she creeps across the stage, Mcduff’s whole being trembles with pain as he learns of the fate of his family, and the hired assassins blot to plaster themselves before Macbeth, their movements almost reptilian. The biggest praise must, however, go to Masachika Ichimura. His very body seems to transform as Macbeth descends into darkness, and he takes the viewer with him, moving ever further into a dreamlike state, one that is hard to shake long after you leave Ninagawa’s world.


Macbeth is playing at the Barbican until the 8th October, more information here.

Image: Sakurahutari

Severija Bielskytė

Severija recently graduated from Goldsmiths university, where she studied Media and Sociology. She works as a freelance researcher, focusing on women’s equality issues, and previously worked at The Fawcett Society. In her home country of Lithuania she is known for...

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