In 2015, the world-famous Ninagawa Company performed Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Barbican in London, to the delight of fans. Two years later and one year after the death of Yukio Ninagawa, the acclaimed Japanese theatre director well-known for his Japanese productions of Shakespearian plays, the Ninagawa Company returned to London. This time, it was to reprise his production of Macbeth, the first Ninagawa production to travel overseas just over 30 years ago.
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies and one that most Brits will recall reading at some stage in their school lives. It tells the story of Macbeth, a lord who encounters three witches, who prophesise he will become king, while returning from battle. Spurred on by his wife and his own ambitions, he sets out on a murderous path.
The Ninagawa production of Macbeth transports the audience from the traditional grey Scottish setting to a more colourful 16th-centry samurai world. Instead of armour and long swords, the men wear gorgeous traditional robes and carry katana. The fluttering cherry blossom petals and blossoming trees provide a very different backdrop to other Shakespearian plays. Naturally, I was enthralled.
As you would expect, the play is performed entirely in Japanese. There are screens positioned in the upper corners of the stage that provide translations, although as you would expect with the translation of a Shakespearian script, there was an occasional time lapse between dialogue and subtitles. Assuming that most people at least vaguely remembered the story of Macbeth and were able to follow visually, this didn’t appear to be a problem for the audience. Although I can imagine some people gave up on reading the on-screen translations so they could focus entirely on the performance itself.
Masachika Ichimura commands the stage as Macbeth, beginning as a domineering yet good-hearted lord before being reduced to a dishevelled man consumed by guilt towards the end. Yuko Tanaka is ethereal and unnerving as Lady Macbeth, and gives a wonderful performance of that famous ‘out, damn spot’ scene. The entire cast, particularly the three witches, is passionate and full of emotion. Everything bubbles up to the final battle scenes, which are brilliantly choreographed and just as well-done as any samurai film.
As a tribute to the late Yukio Ninagawa, this performance of Macbeth could not have been better. Sadly, it’s already left the London stage, but we can always hope that the Ninagawa Company will return to surprise us again…