A Japanese Macbeth That's Out Of This World - Barbican, Review.

A Japanese Macbeth That's Out Of This World - Barbican, Review.

Yukio Ninagawa’s Macbeth has often been referred to as “achingly beautiful”. And it’s a phrase repeated in the programme that accompanies this production’s
fleeting return to London 30 years after it made the great Japanese director’s name here.
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It might sound like marketing blurb but it’s totally apt. I suspect that is the most beautiful Macbeth you will ever see. More than that, though, the beauty carries a quality of intense tragic loss – an ache, if you will. Ninagawa died last May, aged 80. His company’s visit serves as a poignant epitaph. In his time, he established a benchmark for pictorial magnificence, but what this reading of Macbeth does is surpass a decorative transformation (and transposition) of the Scottish play.

A Japanese Macbeth That's Out Of This World - Barbican, Review.


With its huge company, samurai costuming, palatial sense of scale and stylised bouts of combat, it’s old-fashioned “sumptuous” – the obvious point of comparison would be with the cinematic epic of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. But in using the story as a vessel for the gore-soaked tide of Japanese history, there lies a miracle of thematic enrichment and revealed universality. The habitual approach is to maximise the malevolence, but Ninagawa’s (Far Eastern) emphasis is on its mystery. The representation of the supernatural element usually gravitates round the hoary cliché of a bubbling cauldron. Shakespeare’s nightmare vision is here boiled into something more evanescent and otherworldly; delicate, yet terrifying.

A Japanese Macbeth That's Out Of This World - Barbican, Review.


The key element is cherry-blossom, that emblem in Japan of life’s ephemeral nature. It drifts down at the start – glimpsed through a vast latticed screen, amid flashes of lightning on the heath (where the kabuki-ified, male impersonated weird sisters grotesquely cavort) – an eerie mixture of spring-like hope and autumnal reckoning. It recurs throughout, reaching a height of dramatic irony as it furnishes the boughs of Birnam Wood (as incarnated by Macbeth’s enemies to form the harbinger of his downfall). It’s hard not to think of the Aeneid’s simile of falling leaves (evoking the dead in the underworld) as the blossom continues its melancholy descent – underscored, often as not, by refrains of Fauré’s Requiem.

A Japanese Macbeth That's Out Of This World - Barbican, Review.


The point is a simple but stirring one (reinforced by two stooped, mendicant-like crones, peering in from the sidelines, as if at a shrine or from the vantage-point of eternity): all our scrabbling vanities and thrusting ambitions are doomed to come to nought. I can’t fault the players – the principals in particular, Masachika Ichimura and Yuko Tanaka as Macbeth and Lady M, who move from a huddled, exquisitely robed symbiosis to bleak-faced estrangement, bowed by guilty consciences. There are numerous lovely touches that help us overleap the language barrier – the way she cradles, in mime, the child she would dash to pieces should Macbeth’s courage fail; the way, later on, he fondles her discarded kimono, mourning her absence; the astonishing way, too, that a blood-red sun guillotines to a cold blue hue the second Macduff’s fatal sword falls on the tyrant.
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But it’s the dream-like perspective of the thing that most astounds. Three hours in Japanese, with surtitles? Thanks to this late, lamented artist of the floating world, they fly by.

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