Ninagawa – Macbeth

by Jessica Holliland

Ninagawa Macbeth - photo credit Takahiro Watanabe

Ninagawa Macbeth – photo credit Takahiro Watanabe

Plymouth recently welcomed the world renowned Ninagawa – Macbeth to their stage. Yukio Ninagawa was a theatre director who began undertaking the mammoth and unique task of translating classical Shakespearean plays in to traditional Japanese theatre in the 1970’s, and this rendition of Macbeth is the final play that Ninagawa directed before his death in 2016.

Ninagawa situates the Scottish play in a classical Samurai court, bringing together the ferocity and emotion of Macbeth with the honour and beauty of Japan. Although surtitles are available at the side of the stage I found the Japanese language added new layers to the drama, new emphasis and impetus to the phrasing that simultaneously obscured and complemented the humour and aggression of Shakespeare’s storytelling.

The play begins and the weird sisters greet us with the painted faces of Kabuki theatre and elaborate traditional costume, in them, we see a discreet nod to the link between Japanese theatre and the Shakespearean tradition of casting men in women’s roles.

They cast their magic and retreat; the giant paper screen doors part to reveal a blood red moon hung low in the sky. The red glow floods the stage with angst as we watch the protagonists lay out the plot, setting a mood through light and forewarning us of the bloodshed to come.

Ninagawa Macbeth. Photo credit Takahiro Watanabe

Ninagawa Macbeth. Photo credit Takahiro Watanabe

Ninagawa Macbeth - photo credit Piet Defossez

Ninagawa Macbeth – photo credit Piet Defossez

The attention to detail for the design of this play is second to none. Exquisite sets create huge pergolas, castles, great halls and woodland before exchanging seamlessly from scene to scene. Each one tied visually to last with touches of gold, dark umber and cherry blossom and welcomed by the continued presence of our stage holders softly lit with sepia, quietly going about their business as the tragedy unfolds. Invisible within the drama but gently connecting the audience to the stage as they hold their heads in despair and weep with sadness at poignant points in the drama.

There were many among the cast whose acting beautifully transcended the language barriers and conveyed the emotion and energy of their roles, but for me the women in this play warrant a particular mention. The conviction and pure unbridled sincerity portrayed by Lady MacBeth and Lady McDuff was unrivalled as they dragged you in to their damaged psyches and worked beyond the need for language with their performances. It was wonderful to see such powerful presentations

Ninagawa Macbeth photo by Takahiro Watanabe

Ninagawa Macbeth photo credit Takahiro Watanabe

As we progress through the misadventure, the blood moon returns again to stain Macbeth in his final hours. Creating flashes across his samurai sword he slays his own people, these flashes of red are a visual reminder of how much he has taken, and lost, to get to this point. A reminder of how much blood has been shed to achieve his fate. As the last cherry blossom flutters down from the rigging and Macbeth falls, the stage holders come in to focus once more. We watch as they wipe the tears from their faces, carefully rewrap their packages and close the stage. Breaking the spell of the weird sisters and ending the sadness.

Theatre Royal is one of only a few theatres internationally to have built a long-standing rapport with Ninagawa during his life, often being the only theatre outside of London to stage his work. So to be the final venue to host to his final work is fitting and an honour for Plymouth.