Classic, lavish Macbeth with an Asian flourish

Macbeth (Masachika Ichimura, above left) and Banquo (Kazunaga Tsuji) in the Ninagawa Company's Macbeth.
Macbeth (Masachika Ichimura, above left) and Banquo (Kazunaga Tsuji) in the Ninagawa Company's Macbeth.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

The Ninagawa Company's staging of the Shakespearean play draws from Japanese traditions and is complemented by riveting performances



Ninagawa Company

Esplanade Theatre/Last Friday

With costumes, sets and pacing from another era, the Ninagawa Company's Macbeth is a grand, classical staging of the Shakespearean play.

The late director Yukio Ninagawa's version, first staged here 25 years ago, puts the story of a failed powerplay in 16th-century Japan, in a time and country ravaged by warlords competing for one another's lands.

The murderous Macbeth and his overlord Duncan dress in samurai garb and inhabit halls decorated with painted screens. Kimonos trail and warriors assailing Macbeth's castle march behind blossoming branches from the cherry tree.

In that climactic moment, two crones spring forward from the sides of the stage and wave their arms in wonder at the unfolding beauty and tragedy. These characters introduced by the director make Ninagawa's Macbeth unique, more than the lavish sets and costumes.

Macbeth has been reinterpreted powerfully in other contexts. The tale of an ambitious underling works well in gangland settings (the 2003 Bollywood film Maqbool or the 2006 Australian film, Macbeth). In 2010, British Theatre Playhouse put on a comic version here, titled From A Jack To A King, set in the cut-throat music industry.

Ninagawa's Macbeth unfolds as an ancestral memory recalled from the feudal history of Japan.

The play begins with the two old women pulling open the screens of the stage, which is designed to evoke a giant household altar. As warriors fight and schemers plot, the women watch, eating from bento boxes. It is a picnic among the dead, familiar to those who follow Japanese or Chinese tradition.

For those who understand it, the Japanese dialogue is easier to follow than the surtitles flashing Shakespearean English.

The playwright's metaphors and complex rhymes are distilled into familiar phrasings.

Macbeth the faithful warrior-turned-traitor is a stereotype of old-school samurai or yakuza dramas. Even his monologues and long-drawn-out final battle are familiarly over-wrought.

Ninagawa kept to the length and rhythm of Shakespeare's text, which contemporary audiences may find slow. The visuals and stylised actions compensate, reminding viewers that this is a classical staging.

Some relationships rivet, such as that between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, brought to life by Masachika Ichimura and Yuko Tanaka (the former star of much-loved TV series Oshin).

In their first scene together, Lady Macbeth, over-excited by the witches' prophecies, nearly falls off the castle walls. She is steadied by her husband, but the couple's ambition eventually unbalances their happy life together.

Watching their relationship deteriorate under their guilt is part of the tragedy.

The pathos is heightened by the absence of any children who might offer comfort.

Kazunaga Tsuji impresses in his brief role as Banquo and Keita Oishi commands the stage as the grieving warrior Macduff.

His showdown with Macbeth is another highlight of the play, played out under an eerie blood-red moon.

When Macduff strides forward to the new king, Duncan's son, holding Macbeth's head aloft, the two crones on the sideline step forward and close the screens on the triumphant speeches.

The play began with a heroic Macbeth rewarded for loyalty to his king and then overwhelmed by ambition. It closes with a new hero stepping forward to claim his due, but where will it end?

Cycles repeat fatally, Ninagawa seems to say, unless people honour the past by learning from it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2017, with the headline 'Classic, lavish Macbeth with an Asian flourish'. Print Edition | Subscribe