Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Ninagawa’s “Macbeth”: Just Not Shakespeare’s

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By Isaac Lim

(516 words, 5-minute read)

A supersized Butsudan (Buddhist altar) frames the stage, flanked by two old peasants who open the panels to indicate the commencement of a ritual. Within is 16th century post-civil war Japan, replete with samurais and ninjas. Majestic silkscreen doors open and close to reveal different scenes. This is the late Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa’s Macbeth, where everything is painterly beautiful.

In this Macbeth, nothing is quite left to the imagination, and the extravagant visuals aim to stir the emotions. Macbeth and Banquo, richly costumed as samurais, enter with their horses (not real, but nonetheless awe-inspiring). A cascading cherry blossom tree changes with the seasons and becomes the backdrop for Banquo’s murder. Large bronze statues line a grand hall where Malcolm and Macduff meet. A giant moon, colored ominously red, instantaneously turns blue when Macduff’s sword plunges into the tyrant who freezes in tableau, a meta-moment that leaves the audience hanging with bated-breath. Perhaps such stunning visuals make this classic more relatable to audiences with little prior knowledge of the play—but they add little to the drama in the Bard’s work.

Photo Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Indeed, at almost three hours long, this Macbeth slows dully towards the end, even though the text is somewhat abridged. The frequent scene changes and blackouts impede the pacing. Instead of an intense build up towards the final battle scene, static, elegantly composed scenes of tiresome conversations siphon off the energy.

Photo Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

This adaptation of the Shakespearean tragedy puts western art forms together onstage with traditional Japanese culture. It isn’t a fusion of the cultures per se, but more of an attempt to fit different elements together as one might in a collage. On one hand, three white-faced men play the witches Kabuki-style; on the other, a conservative, kimono-clad Lady Macbeth plays a cello in her chamber. Highly-stylized, epic battle scenes are glimpsed in soft-focus behind silkscreen panels, their katana-wielding ninjas accompanied by Faure’s Requiem and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Throughout, the play carries a sense of melancholy, but even more so a sense of confusion caused by the visual and aural mismatch.

Photo Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Another mismatch: placing the show on an altar places Macbeth level with the gods. This is problematic because the heart of the play explores mankind’s foolishness and impermanence. Perhaps the cherry blossoms hint at this, symbolizing life-cycles and renewal—but that may be lost on audience who know little about their significance. Meanwhile, the performers often enter or exit through the auditorium, such as when they leave for war. The demarcations between the higher beings and the humans, between the show and its audience, all become blurred. This viewer was left somewhat confused.

For those familiar with Macbeth, this adaptation may lack the catharsis from the storytelling. Still, I was awestruck by the Ninagawa’s artistry on the work.

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Ninagawa’s Macbeth was directed by Yukio Ninagawa and presented by Ninagawa Company (Japan) and Esplanade Theatres on the Bay. It ran from 23 to 25 November 2017 at the Esplanade Theatre. This review is based on the performance on 23th November 2017, 7.30pm.

Isaac Lim is a full-time daydreamer and most-of-the-time writer. He holds an Honours degree in Theatre Studies from NUS, is a copywriter, playwright, theatregoer. He likes the word ‘and’ because it brings about many possibilities, and can be found on IG through #ZacGoesToTheTheatre.

This review is part of the Performance Criticism Mentorship Programme initiated by National Arts Council and organised by ArtsEquator. It is a six-month programme during which theatre critic and mentor Matthew Lyon guides mentees Isaac Lim and Patricia Tobin in reviewing one performance a month from July to December 2017.

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