Shakespeare’s celebrated play of ambition, the supernatural, and a mad tyrant, iconically set in the scenic highlands of Scotland during the Middle Ages, is taken to Japan and transformed into an extraordinary cross-cultural adaptation by the late director Yukio Ninagawa. First performed at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1985, the play gave Ninagawa his name in the industry. After his death in 2016, Hori Pro Inc. and The Japan Foundation decided to put Macbeth back on the stage.
Entirely in Japanese, the audience may face a difficulty in connecting with the play whilst having to frequently look at the surtitles, but with a basic understanding of the plot of Shakespeare’s original there is no need to look at them at all. The phenomenal cast presents a rich, powerful performance, so emotionally charged that it is the only thing needed to convey the play’s message. Each line is delivered with a punch – admittedly at times a little too excessively. Yuko Tanaka (Lady Macbeth) commands the audience’s attention as she uses the entirety of the stage, casting aside her silk kimono in distress, and giving a sombre rendering of Schubert on the cello. The witches, played by white-faced male kabuki actors, are sinister and ethereal, with shrill voices and facial expressions which could be denoted as possessed.
Ninagawa has shown how Shakespeare’s works can transcend time, language, and culture
The set is exquisite: intricate sixteenth century style furnishings, a shōji used to distinguish between settings, and beautiful cherry blossom trees which appear as a metaphor for death, their petals cascading down from above. The score is ghostly and choral (including formidable gongs and rumbling thunder), the stage barely lit, immersing the audience in the enthralling, uneasy atmosphere of the Macbeth we know. As Masachika Ichimura (Macbeth) falls to his death in the climactic end of the play, the stage is void of light apart from a single spotlight on Ichimura, which then fades into darkness. The audience were in complete awe, and I am certain the powerful performance in this scene is what won Ichimura his standing ovation.
The curtain call was almost as moving as the play itself, with a tribute to Ninagawa. As the compelling performance is congratulated with a roar of applause and cheers, it is made clear that Ninagawa has shown how Shakespeare’s works can transcend time, language, and culture, and gives us the realisation that we are all connected by our ability to feel something.