Three hours of watching Macbeth in Japanese is not your average evening at the Barbican. The very notion of setting what is often seen as a gritty wind and war-torn Scottish play, now cast in dazzling Japanese silk, amidst lanterns, monolithic war statues and of course, all under the bleeding cherry blossom tree. This is not the world of Macbeth we are accustomed to. It is, however, the world of a tragedy.
Despite the clunky but necessary asset of the iambic subtitles appearing on screens either side of the stage, it was possible to find the common ground between the languages of archaic English and Japanese. One of Ninagawa’s intentions in this production has been shown to present a Macbeth that is unashamedly Japanese and uncompromisingly universal.
Iambic pentameter – Shakespearean verse – is translated back to us in 5,7,5 style, typical of Haiku poetry and used in Kabuki (Japanese) theatre. This, if anything, points out the obvious strangeness of the witches, here onstage, white faced, male, fans fluttering and voices trilling.
Since this is Shakespearean tragedy, I’m going to have to mention Aristotle. The man quite literally wrote the book on classical tragedy. He declares, two key aspects a tragedy must have is an act of magnificence, and that the play should inspire pity and fear. Well bully for you Aristotle, I thought, the so called tragic hero is a murderer, he’s hardly an image of magnificence.
The characters in this magical realism world that is war-torn Japan, where people flee to Ireland and England and speak of Scotland being here under this cherry tree, are architectural – they are larger than life in their gestures and the deliverance of lines.
Costume, set and actors together create an all-encompassing sense of the epic. Whilst this is different from the naturalistic and psychological style we are used to seeing in western theatre today, it is not a far cry from Shakespearean acting and even the ancient Greek theatre Aristotle was writing about. By its nature, tragedy comes from some fatal human aspect. The human condition does not belong to British theatre alone, nor Japanese, nor ancient Greek, it is in all of us. And so we feared the slaughter of Macduff’s family, we pitied him when he railed in grief at hearing the news. We feared the beautiful calamity of the final battle where the whole world was imploding on itself, and we were shocked into pity when Macduff stabs Macbeth, and the continuous music is abruptly cut off.
Sociologist, Durkheim once wrote about the effervescent moment. When a society or community – here an audience and cast – come together to communicate and participate in one similar thought and action, collective consciousness, the effervescent moment occurs. When the music cut off as Macbeth was stabbed, we were all shocked. It is not that the audience and cast all know beforehand that Macbeth will be stabbed. It is right there, in that moment of heightened silence, Macbeth has been stabbed and we are shocked, moved to pity and fear.
So too, when the cast came to the curtain call, one by one the wave of a standing ovation grew – those who weren’t sure, hadn’t wanted to, still didn’t get it – we one and all were on our feet because it had touched us all regardless. Durkheim, Aristotle, and Ninagawa himself would have been proud.
Words, Bryony Noble
Pictures, Sakura Hutari