Yukio Ninagawa's version of Macbeth as mystical samurai saga comes here in Nov

Masachika Ichimura plays Macbeth and Yuko Tanaka is Lady Macbeth in Yukio Ninagawa's re-creation of Macbeth, coming to the Esplanade Theatre in November.
Masachika Ichimura plays Macbeth and Yuko Tanaka is Lady Macbeth in Yukio Ninagawa's re-creation of Macbeth, coming to the Esplanade Theatre in November.PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY
Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa.
Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa.PHOTO: MIKA NINAGAWA

Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa revived and revolutionised Shakespeare's Macbeth by transforming it into a mystical samurai saga in 1980.

His version of The Scottish Play shows at the Esplanade Theatre from Nov 23 to 25, a quarter-century after its first staging here.

Ninagawa died of complications caused by pneumonia in May last year, aged 80. He and his Ninagawa Company worked on a revival of Macbeth in 2015 that he hoped would still "knock out" the world.

A statement before his death says: "As I am now approaching... the end of my life, I wanted to confirm if I had really created a production that expressed my vision of the world and if I had been able to display a definite ability."

Like Britain's Peter Brook, who turned A Midsummer Night's Dream into a circus of trapezes and sensuality, or Canada's Robert Lepage, whose one-man Hamlet in a suspended cube opened the Singapore International Festival of Arts last year, Ninagawa's vision of Macbeth is unforgettable.

He set The Scottish Play in war-torn 16th-century Japan and within the traditional Buddhist altar present in most Japanese homes. Two crones, not present in Shakespeare's script, open the doors of the altar before the action begins and remain on the stage as observers.


  • WHERE: Esplanade Theatre, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Nov 23 and 24, 7.30pm, Nov 25, 2pm

    ADMISSION: $48 to $188 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

The audience is thus always aware of the staged nature of the production as well as the inexorable, inescapable whirlpool of events Macbeth is trapped by.

Through cherry blossom forests and a soundtrack of sacred music, including a Western requiem, Ninagawa emphasised the script's connection with the spiritual and surreal. Japanese culture includes such connections as well and Ninagawa drew on this when working on Macbeth.

He wrote before his death: "The tradition of a Japanese theatre enables us to make a leap in certain ways. Normally, it is difficult to make people believe in ghosts... but Japanese people have a sense that we might encounter... something creepy when the sun goes down... we greet Buddha at our homes and visit the graveyard with tiered food boxes and eat meals between the graves of our ancestors and cherry trees."

Ninagawa's Macbeth was staged in Japan in 1980 and won international acclaim after a performance at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1985.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are played here by Masachika Ichimura and Yuko Tanaka, who worked on other Shakespeare plays with Ninagawa, such as Pericles.

Ichimura recalls that the director applied the carrot-and-stick approach during rehearsals. "Even (if) he yells, I fall for his smile afterwards."


Both the actors, who did not give their ages, say in e-mail interviews that they still feel the unseen hand of the director pushing them through rehearsals and performances.

After Ninagawa's death, Ichimura builds on memories of rehearsals by watching documentaries of the director "to find the things he might say to me".

Tanaka says that for Macbeth, she was deeply aware of being placed visually and specifically within a greater set, much like "an infinitesimal human in the universe". At the same time, she was led to connect with the heart of the character, as human as hers.

She recalls that Ninagawa told her: "The story of Macbeth could happen to anyone."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2017, with the headline 'Macbeth amid cherry blossoms and sacred music'. Print Edition | Subscribe