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Theatre Review: Ninagawa Company ‘Macbeth’.


Presented by the Barbican in association with Thelma Holt, Saitama Arts Foundation and HoriPro Inc

macebth barbican.jpgCo-produced by The Japan Foundation

Barbican, London 5-8 October

Theatre Royal, Plymouth 13-14 October

After Yukio Ninagawa’s death nearly a year and a half ago in May 2016 his ‘Ninagawa Macbeth’ (and this is the only one of his Shakespearean productions he allowed to use his name) returned to London this year after a thirty year absence for a memorial run at the Barbican in London and the Theatre Royal in Plymouth with the help, amongst others, of the perfectly placed Thelma Holt CBE whose association with Japan was formed through her long relationship with Ninagawa.

In an interview in January 2013 with Diverse Japan (Interview: Producer Thelma Holt – Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai) Holt said that in her opinion ‘You can count really great Shakespearean Directors on one hand and he’s one of them’ and that she has ‘now seen so much of his work’ that she has ‘no interest in anything else anyone else does. I mean why drink milk when you’ve got cream?’.

The play, this production of which stars Masachika Ichimura (13 Assassins, Therma Romae, Therma Romae 2) as Macbeth and Yuko Tanaka (The Firefly, Hibi, The Milkwoman) as Lady Macbeth, originally premiered at the Nissei Theatre in Tokyo in 1980 and then toured the UK (at the Edinburgh International Festival) and the Netherlands in 1985 and then, such was its success in Edinburgh, at the National Theatre in London in 1987 for which it was nominated for the Olivier Award for Best Director.

There have been many many productions of Macbeth in Japan and by Japanese theatre companies since the first performance by the Western actors of the Miln Company of Macbeth which was performed on a single evening in 1897 in Yokohama which was seen by the playwright Tsubouchi Shōyo who himself had previously translated ‘Macbeth’ into Japanese in the Kabuki jōruri style and whose later 1905 play ‘Maki no Kata’ (Lady Maki) was loosely based on ‘Macbeth’.

The stage setting is a gigantic Japanese ‘butsudan’, or household shrine, within which the play is performed, almost as a play within a play, the doors forming the divide between the spiritual realm, the realm of death, and the audience, the realm of the living, as two old ladies witness the entire proceedings and open and close the doors to the butsudan patiently sitting either side of the stage from start to finish. In fact Ninagawa remarked in his book ‘Thousand Knives, Thousand Eyes’ that when lighting incense at his butsudan for his relatives that he thought Macbeth was one of his ancestors.

The action is gloriously transposed to that of 16th century Japan, during the final years of the Sengoku Period as order was being imposed on Japan by the samurai warlords Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi after the chaos of the preceding years.

The wonderful witches with their sacred paper ‘shide’ wands led by the ‘onnagata’ female role specialist Kabuki actor Nakamura Kyozo clamour for attention as they lead the audience into their metaphoric statement around which the entire world of the remainder of the play revolves, as Natsume Soseki remarked the line ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’ is one of the most subtle passages worthy of the name of Shakespeare. It is the phrase that is the harbinger of the entire play, spoken as the witches begin to tempt and to place Macbeth under their spell.

As far as possible the production uses a metaphrastic translation as evidenced by the surtitles which only had one or two mistakes, Ninagawa intent on leaving the translation to the translators yet making the interpretation of the play his own – two types of interpreters working side by side.


Photo by Seigo Kyota

The main concern with most Japanese productions of Shakespeare, is that most Japanese cultural references might be lost to a general Western audience.

For instance with the presence of cherry blossom petals on the stage, falling from a tree and as a design on both Macbeth and his wife’s kimono over gowns this production is infused with cherry blossom as a symbol of the transience of life, of the shedding of blood, but mostly of their tortured descent into madness. Though something which is actually from Motojirō Kajii’s 1928 poem ‘Under the Cherry Trees’ which has made its way into general Japanese culture and as a consequence is now purported to be a Japanese legend, is the tale of corpses buried under a cherry tree, the blood of which makes the, originally white blossoms, pink.

Macbeth photo by Takahiro Watanabe

Photo by Takahiro Watanabe

Where along the polemical continuum of the inconclusive debate (‘botsu risō ronsō’)  Ninagawa’s Macbeth lies between the playwright Tsubouchi Shōyō and author Mori Ōgai over the analysis of Macbeth’s attitude as either ‘lack of morals’ or ‘lack of interest’, and the question over the play’s realism or idealism, is not left in question – firmly in the ‘lack of morals’ camp and idealism; Ninagawa eschews Natsumi Soseki’s consequential logic of actions based on emotions for the stirrings of the heart, or kokoro, elicited by the music using Barber’s Adagio for Strings and the Sanctus from Faure’s Requiem alongside the stunningly beautiful stage sets replete with the copious symbolic cherry blossom.

Whilst Masachika Ichimura’s Macbeth has the forcefulness and subtly twisted gravitas expected of Macbeth’s character Yuko Tanaka’s Lady Macbeth seemed to lack something of the expected depth of twisted malice from a woman who is both supportive and exceptionally manipulative of her husband, à la Lady Kaede in Kurosawa’s film ‘Ran’.

Ultimately the pain felt as an observer watching this tragedy unfold is as a result of a masterpiece of direction, of great sorrow wrung from the depths of madness, the quivering of life, the pulsating throbbing gristle, felt so acutely as to bring silent painful tears at bearing witness to such a folly of the human condition, in an almost overwhelming suspension of disbelief.


© Ninagawa Company – Photo by Mika Ninagawa

Twice seen in thirty years, thrice unlikely… …we shall not see his like again though, as Thelma Holt commented in 2013, ‘as for the future of Anglo-Japanese Theatre productions’ we need ‘as much Ninagawa as we can get’… …’ we do produce magnificent theatre and so do the Japanese’…

Quite rightly the final applause was left to that made in tribute to a large photo of Ninagawa hovering over the stage. Thoroughly recommended requisite viewing.

YouTube promo video


Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

Related Posts:

Theatre Review: Anjin: The Shogun And The English Samurai

Interview: Producer Thelma Holt – Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai 

Interview: Actor Stephen Boxer – Anjin: The Shogun and the Samurai

Anjin: The Shogun & The English Samurai At Sadler’s Wells London 






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