2 October 2015 (Fri), Tokyo
I had seen this production maybe 20 years earlier but, with only the vaguest memory of it now, I immediately said yes when a friend suggested going. This is Ninagawa’s revival of his first version of the show, the one that put him on the map internationally. The run was completely sold out before it opened on the strength of its considerable reputation, and my friend fortunately moved quickly when they announced an extra show.
The part I did remember was that the show was transported to Japan and set in the late 16th century just before Ieyasu took power. It was off-putting to hear the Japanese soldiers call each other Macbeth and Malcolm and such – couldn’t they have worked in Japanese names somehow? – but the story holds up perfectly well in its new context. Even Lady Macbeth has plenty of evil female counterparts in Japanese dramas, especially Kabuki. The show is way too talkative and introspective for a full Kabuki treatment, where the emphasis would be on the action with only hints of Macbeth’s inner torments and such. But this jidaigeki style proved a good fit.
The show is visually stunning. The action is framed within a butsudan-like structure (Buddhist death altar). At the opening, two old crones shuffle into view, open the doors of the butsudan and bow reverently before it. They retreat as the show starts but remain visible throughout the night on opposite sides of the stage just outside the proscenium, where they quietly eat, drink and remain totally oblivious to the proceedings until it’s time to close the doors again. This has the effect of highlighting the artificiality of what’s happening on stage by implying that the action is taking place within, like watching a movie unfold on a separate screen. I don’t know what that has to do with the events at hand, but I’m sure it’s very symbolic.
A Buddhist theme was further hinted at in the prominent use of cherry blossoms, such as the petals from the shower of blossoms in the opening scene that were left scattered on stage throughout the show. This may have been a reference to life’s brevity and all that, as in Macbeth’s “Out, out, brief candle!” soliloquy. But it doesn’t make much sense in the context of the show otherwise. (I’m not even sure if that allusion would be appreciated by foreign audiences, who generally see cherry blossoms as a sign of spring and rebirth rather than the ephemeral nature of life. It can’t have had much to do with the show’s acclaim overseas other than the sheer beauty of the presentation.) All very curious.
There were floor-to-ceiling shoji-like panels that were opened and closed frequently to allow for scene changes and such. The evocative lighting allowed us to see through the shoji in some spectacular tableaux, putting us at yet another remove from the action. For instance, the memorable approach of the Birnam Wood warriors camouflaged in foliage was done completely behind the transparent screens, making it more cinematic than realistic. Similarly, the beautiful muffled images of cherry trees were almost dreamlike or other-worldly. The technique was especially effective in the banquet scene, which took place behind the screens. The Macbeths would emerge in front of the shoji for their asides whenever the ghost appeared, as if stepping out of a picture. (It also allowed for Banquo to switch quickly with the suit of armor in a nice illusion – though it was a bit obvious from the placement of the armor dead center downstage that Banquo was going to appear there.) The screens also added spectacularly to the witch scenes, especially with the Kabuki-style acting. It’s the most effective treatment of these scenes I’ve ever seen. Overall, the screens produced some gorgeous imagery and succeeded in making those scenes live and not live at the same time, an odd but interesting approach.
As with all Ninagawa productions, they didn’t spare any expense with the sets or costumes. There were some impressive pieces, such as the seven massive Buddhist guardian statues during the (long) scene between Macduff and the others, and the Phantom-like candles strewn across the room that Macbeth tries desperately to blow out. The battle scenes were chambara spectacles, taking full advantage of the large (30 or so) cast with some good swordfighting. But my favorite part was the utter simplicity of Lady Macbeth’s stylized sleepwalking sequence, where the superb lighting was practically a set in itself (that applies to the dagger scene as well). The costumes and hairstyles were faithful to the period other than some bizarre wigs for the Macbeths.
The acting was realistic for the most part and the presentation straightforward, making me wonder what it would look like on a naked stage without the shoji and such. There was the usual overacting and strange speech patterns, like the unnatural pauses between (and even during) certain lines. The one exception was Ichimura Masachika, who conveyed the full range of Macbeth’s character from impetuousness to guilt to madness, and commanded the stage whenever he was on. He was easily the show’s biggest asset on the acting side. I wasn’t as impressed at first with Tanaka Yuko, who didn’t give a real sense of ruthlessness as Lady Macbeth. But she came through big-time with an unforgettable sleepwalking scene, entering slowly with a burning candle, dropping to her knees and performing choreographed arm-washing movements almost like a dance. That was probably the show’s most impressive single scene, and she carried it off superbly. The rest of the cast was generally fine, though I would have preferred a younger Macduff since this one didn’t seem fully committed in the final swordfights. The actors weren’t overly individualistic; it was hard to tell one character from another after a while, and I had to wait for hints from the dialogue in some cases.
The show’s transposition of the setting to 16th-century Japan was smooth and credible, as I recalled from last time. While I’m still not convinced by the Buddhist theme implied by the butsudan, that didn’t affect the action onstage, which was nicely no-nonsense. And there’s no denying the physical splendor of the production. It’s hard to compare this to other Macbeths because the delivery of the language is so different; I wonder if some of its foreign reputation is because critics abroad simply don’t understand Japanese. It would be interesting to see this version in English. In any case, a worthwhile production.