Barbican Theatre, London (*****)

© Sakurahutar, Masachika Ichimura and Yuko Tanaka - Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

© Sakurahutar, Masachika Ichimura and Yuko Tanaka – Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

Yukio Ninagawa, Peter Brook, Peter Stein, Robert Lepage, Pina Bausch, Merce Cunningham, Yuri Lubimov – the 1980s and 1990s inspired an amazing blossoming of world class international directors.

Among them, Ninagawa presented perhaps the most extreme example of cultural fusion. A wholly Japanese, East Asian Kabukiesque aesthetic grafted onto, fused with, one of western and Britain’s playwriting giants, Shakespeare and suffused yet more by the sounds of classical western music.

So much has been written about Ninagawa since he burst onto the scene via Medea and then his Edinburgh Festival appearance with Macbeth in 1985. Subsequently Thelma Holt, his longtime collaborator and artistic midwife who did so much to bring him to western audiences, brought him to Peter Hall’s National Theatre in her International seasons and then later the Barbican continued to develop their relationship with him.

It is now a little over a year since Ninagawa died and this revival of Macbeth with the help of another longtime friend, the HoriPro company and Ninagawa’s creative team, of arguably his greatest hit, certainly brought an extra emotional tug to the Barbican as the audience rose at the end to salute the cast and Yukio Ninagawa’s memory.

But even had it not been tinged with melancholic tribute, this Macbeth would have knocked newcomers anyway for six.

© Takahiro Watanabe, sumptuous, scenic beauty. Ninagawa company.

© Takahiro Watanabe, sumptuous, scenic beauty. Ninagawa company.

Macbeth escaped me first time around. I came to it completely fresh knowing only that it became famous for its `cherry blossom’. I’d seen and loved Ninagawa’s King Lear and his Coriolanus. What I had forgotten was not only the sumptuousness of the settings but the dynamism of the acting – as if watching Kurosawa’s cinematic samurai warriors transmitted to stage in full medieval blood curdling, armour plated detail.

But as so often with Shakespeare when addressed by artists with a different aesthetic from our own, Ninagawa also brought so much more.

His Macbeth opens with two old crones, almost bent double crawling towards giant studded doors and genuflecting before them as if paying homage to a time-honoured epic myth – which indeed is what this Macbeth turns out to be.

Not so much a psychological study of over-arching ambition and a guilty conscience – although unmistakeably that is all there, painted on a vast canvas in high gloss colour – Masachika Ichimura is certainly fearsome but of wholly different variety to the RSC or Shakespeare’s Globe style.

© Seigo Kiyota, Masachika Ichimura - Macbeth

© Seigo Kiyota, Masachika Ichimura – Macbeth

This is a sad, tragic Macbeth on a huge, epic scale – both in person and in overall theme as he and Lady Macbeth’s fates are played out to the accompaniment of soaring choruses from Faure’s Requiem and Albinoni’s lamenting, lambent Adagio.

Ichimura’s heavy-lidded, heavy-jowled face with its dark brooding eyes burn with melodramatic intensity the like of which hasn’t been witnessed on western stages probably for a century or more. We’ve completely forsaken the `high’ manner for slimmed-down, tv-internalised `naturalism’ as if afraid to even attempt emotional grandeur.

Well, Ichimura and the rest of this cast show just what can be achieved by full-bloodied, unabashed `ham’ acting coupled with superb framing and one scenic tableaux beauty after another.

I shall long treasure the sight of Ichimura and Yuko Tanaka’s Lady Macbeth, bedecked in wonderfully flowing silks making their slow process up the stairs backstage – the beauty of it, the tragedy of it. Or the way she, left alone in her closet, Tanaka runs her fingers ruefully, slowly through long strands of her hair.

Or the way Ninagawa produces Banquo’s ghost at the dinner after Duncan’s death.

Throughout proceedings, there has been a chair high upstage on which the leggings and armour of the old murdered King Duncan have been lodged – an effigy sans body.

As Macbeth raises a cup of wine to salute his honoured guests, a scarlet, blood-soaked mirage of Banquo appears in the chair paralysing Macbeth – and as soon, is gone.

Masterly – as too the battle scenes. No clanking iron against iron here but a highly choreographed, synthesised movement, warriors in full regalia miming their cut and thrust.

And when it comes to Macbeth’s final battle, Ichimura adopts a look and goes through the motions of scything through opponents as if to say, `I know I’m invincible, no one can touch me. I lead a charmed life until Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinaine.’

© Takahiro Watanab, Masachika Ichimura beneath the cherry blossom, lamenting the death of Lady Macbeth, before the battle...

© Takahiro Watanab, Masachika Ichimura beneath the cherry blossom, lamenting the death of Lady Macbeth, before the battle…

And in his scenic coup de grace, Ninagawa’s Birnham wood comes to Macbeth as cherry blossom, branches taken from a vast spreading tree of white cherry blossoms.

At the end, you sit stunned by the grip this strange, foreign world has exerted on the imagination as the great doors clang shut, the gongs boom out and the old crones, munching throughout on their supper, withdraw.

And I thought of one of our own, almost forgotten stars from the 1970s, Lindsay Kemp, and his influence on David Bowie and the influences Kemp himself may have picked up from Kabuki, Japanese culture and especially their male-female onnagata (Ninagawa’s witches are indeed `onnagata’). What a richness, what an elusive, slow-paced, whey-faced other world.

And how lucky to have been able to see it, again, one more time.


By William Shakespeare 

Performed in Japanese with English surtitles
Directed by Yukio Ninagawa

Macbeth: Masachika Ichimura
Lady Macbeth: Yuko Tonaka
Banquo: Kazunaga Tsuji
Macduff: Keita Oishi
King Duncan: Tetsuro Sagawa
Porter: Kenichi Ishii
Witch 1: Kyozo Nakamura
Old Man/Siward: Tatsumi Aoyama
Malcom: Hayata Tateyama
Witch 3: Eiichi Seike
Ross: Hiroyuki Mamiya
Angus: Hideaki Tezuka
Doctor: Kunihiro Iida
Lord: Yukio Tsukamoto
Witch 2: Yamato Kamiyama
Gentlewoman: Hitomi Kageyama
Lennox: Fumiaki Hori
Old Lady: Yoko Haneda
Old Lady: Yuko Kato
Murderer 1: Genki Hori
Lady Macduff/Gentlewoman: Erika Shumoto
Menteith: Takamori Teuchi
Donalbain: Ryutarou Akimoto
Fleance/Young Siward: Riku Ichikawa
Seyton: Masaru Shirakawa
Messenger/Soldier: Jumpei Tsuzuki
Caithness: Shinnosuke Suzuki
Messenger/Soldier: Hideki Takahashi
Messenger/Soldier: Mao Ushiroda
Servant: Ryosuke Gomi
Murderer 2: So Nishimura
Servant/Soldier: Daichi Okamoto
Son of Macduff: Hikaru Yamozaki

Director: Yukio Ninagawa
Translator: Yushi Odashima
Set Designer: Kappa Senoh
Lighting Designer: Sumio Yoshii
Sound Effects: Akira Honma
Sound Designer: Katsuji Takahashi
Choreographer: Juraku Hanayagi
Fight Choreographers: Masahiro Kunii, Naoki Kurihara
Costume Designer: Jusaburo Tsujimura
Wig Designer: Nihiro Fukamachi
Make-up Designer: Yoko Kawamura
Costume Coordinator: Kazuo Kawasaki
Associate Set Designer: Atsumi Yokata
Associate Lighting Designer: Naomi Suzuki
Chief Assistant Director: Sonsho Inoue
Assistant Director: Naoko Okouchi

Surtitles: Francine Yorke

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

Co-produced by The Japan Foundation
Supported by the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation

Performances at the Barbican Theatre from Oct 5-8, 2017

Review published on this site, Oct 6, 2017