Mostly Mozart Festival 2018 Review – Ninagawa Macbeth

Shakespeare Re-imagining Makes For A Fleeting Treasure of A Show

By Logan Martell

Setting the timeless tragedy of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” within Japan’s Azuchi-Momoyama period, ranging from 1568 to 1600 A.D., director Yukio Ninagawa takes drama and staging to new levels in this utterly beautiful production.

On adapting the famous work, the late Ninagawa writes: “The tradition of Japanese theater enables us to make a leap in certain ways. Normally, it is difficult to make people believe in ghosts as they are. But Japanese people have a sense that we might encounter something creepy when the sun goes down as in our oumagatoki (the moment at dusk when the sky grows dark; the time of meeting dark creatures). At equinoctial week, 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. I considered that those sceneries that were seen natural in the lives of Japanese people up until a certain time will be ‘our Macbeth.’”

On Impermanence

The central theme of Ninagawa’s production is the fleeting nature of time, achieving this through the nearly ubiquitous presence of death. Shakespeare’s text is illuminated through the many aspects of Japanese culture and aesthetic sensibility drawn from Shinto and Buddhist practices. When the audience first sees Macbeth, played by Masachika Ichimura, he is robed in white, being symbolic of death, and around his neck is a wreath of shide parchments; often hung from shimenawa ropes used to denote the boundaries of sacred spaces, this wreath seemed to suggest Macbeth’s greater destiny, to be foretold by the approaching witches. This white robe returned when Macbeth sets to his task of killing King Duncan, played by Tetsuro Sagawa; after bidding farewell to Kazunaga Tsuji’s Banquo, Ichiro quickly drops the orange haori he veiled himself with before setting to his bloody work.

Most recognizable is the symbolism of the cherry blossom tree, making frequent and highly meaningful appearances throughout. We first see a gentle shower of petals falling when Macbeth begins to monologue after learning of the witches’ prophecy and his fate as king; following their coronation, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s robes bear the cherry blossom pattern, as if an imprint marking their own swiftly dwindling time. The tree itself draws all eyes upon it during its appearances, emerging in full bloom for the murder of Banquo, and to striking effect when Macduff’s soldiers use cherry blossom branches to create the illusion of Birnam forest marching on Macbeth in Dunsinane to fulfill the second apparition’s prophecy.

An Explosive Cast

In the title role, Masachika Ichimura began with a dignified composure that did not take long to unravel on his bloody path to regicide. When suppressing his inner turmoil, there were moments when Ichimura let out a pained cry, unable to bear the brewing conflict. With Lady Macbeth in the first half, Ichimura was the more stoic of the two, but this was swiftly lost in the second half when Macbeth begins to rant and rave after seeing the ghost of Banquo; this effect was achieved when the suit of armor decoratively placed in the center of the king’s hall began to glow a haunting blue and red. Macbeth’s famous monologue “Tomorrow… and tomorrow… and tomorrow…” was delivered as Ichimura stood within a ring of flickering candles. This lent a more literal take on the line “Out, out, brief candle,” but most interesting was the choice of words in Japanese, particularly  消えろ (pronounced “Kiero,”) and meaning to vanish or disappear.

Every bit of Macbeth’s match was Yuko Tanaka as Lady Macbeth. Whether it be in plotting murder or arranging dinner, Tanaka was as elegant as she was expressive. All these emotions visibly wore down on Lady Macbeth as the night progressed, leading into a mad scene to open Act five. This scene saw the spectral figure of Tanaka attempting to wash the blood of King Duncan from her hands, featuring the famous line “Out damned spot! Out, I say!”

Heaped with all the grief and victory of a tragic hero was Keita Oishi as Macduff. As the audience, we watch not only the brutal murder of his wife and child, but Macduff’s anguish upon learning the news as well. Though the pants of his armor were spacious, his legs shaking in boiling anger were visible to all. Though his lines here were brief they were powerfully delivered: “But I must also feel it as a man: I cannot butremember such things were, that were most precious to me. – Did heaven look on, and would not take their part?… Fell slaughter on their souls: heaven rest them now!” All of this culminated in his showdown with Macbeth, after battling his soldiers beneath the cherry blossom tree; though his leg in wounded, Oishi returns in triumph through the aisles to present the severed head of Macbeth to the assembled generals.

 The Music

While “Ninagawa Macbeth” is not a musical or opera, the score composed for it introduced and complimented the unfolding drama. The performance opens with two beggar women, bent and shuffling their way down the aisles of seats towards the gates of the stage. They open them, kneel, and begin to wail evocatively before they’re joined by a rising wave of synth. Adding to this sort of overture was a strong and driving pulse of horns, lending a highly majestic feeling. After this, the strings played a tremendous role due to its use in transitions, key moments, and even on stage when Yuko Tanaka’s Lady Macbeth bows a cello in dark anticipation of the murder of King Duncan. Notably employed was the use of charged but sorrowful motive played by the strings; while there were moments where it grew to an almost fevered peak, its highly recurring appearances seemed to suggest all the many events within the story being treated with a similar gloss. Various bells played a prominent role throughout the production, ranging from the higher alarum used to wake the household after Duncan’s body is discovered, to the deep tolling of temple bells heard as the doors close around Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to end the first half of the performance. Smaller but powerfully used effects include a murmuring wind and the shrieking of an owl.

The Spectacle

“Ninagawa Macbeth” was gorgeous from beginning to end, and not just for its iconic cherry blossoms. The attention to detail on the costumes, set, and lighting cannot be overstated; while it may not leave much to the imagination, the audience is instead spirited away by the enchanting design. Much of this climaxed in scenes featuring the trio of witches: scattered lightning, whirling cauldrons of fire, and a bloody moon which gripped the sky in a constant lunar eclipse. While the set itself was rearranged between scenes with great speed, sometimes the simplest of changes can also be the most meaningful; as Macbeth and Macduff bring an end to their fated battle, the instant Macduff deals the fatal stroke is when the blood moon reverts to blue in the blink of an eye, as if a curse being finally lifted.

It is more than tempting to indulge in all the details, but “Ninagawa Macbeth” is still very much concerned with the passing of the moment. Though there is the joyous celebration when Macbeth’s head is presented and Malcolm, played by Hayata Tateyama, takes on the role as king, he soon begins outlining the long preparations to restore the peace of the land; the beggar women flanking the gates slowly shut the screen doors as Malcolm continues speaking and life continues to flow onwards. A testament to Yukio Ninagawa’s mastery of stagecraft, “Ninagawa Macbeth” will spellbind fans of Shakespeare, Japanese culture, and theatre as a whole.


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