William Shakespeare
Ninagawa Company
Barbican Centre

Masachika Ichimura and Yuko Tanaka Credit: Takahiro Watanabe
Ninagawa Company Macbeth Credit: Takahiro Watanabe
Ninagawa Company Macbeth Credit: Takahiro Watanabe

Down the years, a small number of Shakespearean productions have attained legendary status, almost always thanks to a powerful leader. These include personalities such as Burbage (one imagines), Garrick, Olivier and Peter Brook.

Very few would dispute the inclusion of Yukio Ninagawa's Macbeth, which originally premièred in 1980 and has enchanted the world ever since, on this august list and anyone lucky enough to catch this short run will be astonished at its virtuosity.

Sadly, the Japanese director passed away a year ago but, like the great ballets, his greatest inspirations will outlive the creator and act as a fine memorial to a theatrical genius.

Watching a play with surtitles is never ideal but listening to Shakespeare rendered in Japanese is a necessary adjunct to an evening that transforms medieval Scotland to the age and jurisdiction of Samurai warriors.

Everything about the Ninagawa ethos is sumptuous. There is a cast of 32, allowing the director to deliver a satisfyingly full three-hour version of the tragedy with few corners cut and the spirit of the original maintained.

Visually, it is repeatedly almost overwhelming, thanks to the carefully intertwined work of set, costume and lighting designers Kappa Sennoh, Jusaburo Tsujimura and Sumio Yoshii. The costumes are beautiful, whether it is kimonos, helmets or a pair of horses so convincing that one has to do a double take to realise that they are not the real thing.

The sets, which encompass very personal events such as the sleepwalking scene as easily as major crises, are based on traditional Japanese models. They repeatedly fill the stage with beautiful images, peaking when a cherry-blossom-filled Birnam Wood marches on Dunsinane. Before that, numerous other settings threaten to take the breath away, including stylised battles, oversized warrior statues in England or the court of the King.

The acting style, from the cross-dressing witches who set up the evening onwards, is determinedly Japanese. This should be incongruous for the very English playwright but embodies the plot so well that you almost begin to think that the Bard of Avon actually had the Eastern nation in mind when he conceived his tragedy.

Inevitably, the eye is caught be the efforts of Masachika Ichimura and Yuko Tanaka as the Shogun Macbeth and his scheming Lady, but the most moving performance is arguably that of Keita Oishi's Macduff, whose collapse on discovering the deaths of his wife and little chickens might leave many in tears.

This is a really special occasion and should not be missed. One hopes that someone has the gumption to film it as well, since such productions really should be shared widely and saved for posterity.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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