This production by Yukio Ninagawa caused a sensation at the 1985 Edinburgh festival and started a long love affair between the Japanese director and British theatregoers. Now, 18 months after Ninagawa’s death, it has been revived and seems as boldly imaginative as ever. This is not Macbeth as we usually see it. Rather, the play becomes a movingly poetic meditation on human transience.
Two withered crones – who might be simple storytellers or embodiments of fate – part wooden screens to reveal the drama of Macbeth and look on as it unfolds. But Ninagawa’s approach is unashamedly pictorial. Macbeth and Banquo, both 16th-century samurai warriors, are first seen astride prancing palfreys. Banquo’s murder, normally played in Stygian gloom, here takes place against a background of cascading cherry blossom, which becomes one of the production’s visual leitmotifs. The scene in England between Malcolm and Macduff is set in a castle filled with gigantic bronze statuary.
What makes this Macbeth so powerful is that Ninagawa’s gift for painterly spectacle is accompanied by a sense of sadness at mankind’s folly and impermanence. This is reinforced by his constant use of the Fauré Requiem and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings as a musical background. The old women, who initiate the action, are seen to weep as Macbeth plunges into tyranny and sanctions the murder of Macduff’s wife and children. Above all, the cherry blossom, which descends in abundance during the thrillingly stylised battle scenes, seems to denote not just natural beauty but mortality.
Ninagawa went on to create even greater interpretations of Shakespeare, such as his refugee-based Pericles and lotus-filled Titus Andronicus. But this Macbeth shows his mastery of image and sound and a capacity to draw fine performances from his actors. Masachika Ichimura makes Macbeth a heroic soldier who exults in power only to be confronted by its insecurity and emptiness. Dauntless in battle, he quivers when confronted by the spectral victims of his despotism. Yūko Tanaka’s Lady Macbeth, first seen playing the cello in her castle, is also clearly a woman of grace and sensitivity destroyed by her desire for supremacy.
In Ninagawa’s hands, the play becomes about two people who, if not fallen angels, are ruined titans. It is an extraordinary production and, at the end, it seemed fitting that cast and audience joined in applauding the image of its late, great director.
- At Barbican, London, until 8 October. Box office: 0845 120 7511. Then at Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 13–14 October. Box office: 01752 267222.