Review: Ninagawa Company: Macbeth, Barbican Theatre

After its debut at the 1985 Brighton Fringe, Yukio Ninagawa’s revered production of Macbeth is back. A unique and beautiful fusion of East and West, Shakespeare’s timeless tale gets a Japanese makeover. Ninagawa’s production is undeniably beautiful. Complete with stunning costumes including traditional Japanese kimonos and samurai swords, this production breathes new life into arguably one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays. A key theme in this production is the cherry blossom tree, which in Japan symbolise the ephemeral nature of life. The transience of the blossoms, and their beauty and volatility, are often associated with mortality and grace, making them a fitting centrepiece.

A play usually drenched in medieval misery, the blood and dirt of 17th Century Britain, is made slick and stylish and injected with honour and grace. This production, down to the finest details like the movement of the cast and fight choreography, differs so greatly from any Macbeth you’ve ever seen before. Precise and dance-like, the cast float around the stage always maintaining elegance, especially during war scenes. Tragedy is heightened even more so, if somehow possible, and the scene in Act 2 when Macduff’s wife and children are slaughtered is the most devastating of its kind I’ve ever seen. Lady Macduff’s wail as her young child, trying to protect her, is struck by a 3ft sword, was breathtakingly sad.

Masachika Ichimura’s Macbeth begins stern and strong, but as time progresses and his conscience grows, his exterior weakens as his mind does too. Mirrored in Lady Macbeth, played by Yuko Tanaka, is the same depletion of the mind and loss of sanity. She begins steadfast and sure, conspiring with her husband, the pair are (literally) partners in crime in the first act. Huddled and whispering, they plot and scheme together, but the guilt and worry drives a wedge between them. Tanaka’s performance evokes sympathy for Lady Macbeth, and portrays her as less evil and vindictive, not directing Macbeth like Western productions often tend to suggest, but more determined and driven for both to succeed.

Ninagawa sadly died last May at 80 years old, and this production eulogises him and his legacy excellently. After the success of his Macbeth, Ninagawa went on to adapt more of Shakespeare’s work, including Pericles and Titus Andronicus, which I now would love to see revived. At three hours long, and in Japanese with English surtitles, the production does feel lengthy. There is never a moment which lacks a certain beauty that Western productions don’t capture, and while it lacks the grimy realism of the traditional staging, perhaps that is what makes this version so enticing.

Ninagawa Company: Macbeth played the Barbican Theatre until 8th October.

Jessica Handscomb

Jessica Handscomb

Jessica was born and raised in North London, and studied English at Goldsmith's College, University of London. A life-long lover of theatre, books and the great outdoors, she is also a Spice Girls enthusiast, perpetual over-sleeper and lover of Italian food. Above all she loves to write, and hopes to build a career around this.