‘Our directors really need to pull their socks up,’ I think, as the cherry blossom falls for the final time in Ninagawa’s revered 1985 production of Macbeth – restaged and touring the world to mark the Japanese director’s death. During the play’s final moments my mind wanders to other Shakespeare productions I’ve seen on the same stage. Much of this has been the turgid offerings of one of our leading cultural organisations – which Ninagawa’s work manages to render even more disappointing in retrospect than they were at the time.
For many people theatre means lavish sets and costume, and Shakespeare in particular means a doublet and hose. The opulence of Elizabethan and Jacobean dress signifies that this is Important Stuff that will improve us if we place it unquestioningly on a pedestal. In answer to this, well-seasoned theatre types often take the opposite view and feel the urge to run a mile at the sight of a ruff. It’s a red flag that suggests few questions are going to be asked and a painful evening of declaiming and sense-barbling end-stopping lies ahead. Of course, not all period dress productions fail to challenge their source material, but how rare it is, I think, as the huge black-lacquered shōji doors are closed, that a production is both critically and emotionally engaging, as well as no-hold-barred, bonkers-gorgeous and theatrical on a great, big scale.
So rare, it seems, that a show which succeeds in doing it will still be doing the rounds 35 years later. This 30-year-old Macbeth delivers theatricality in spades – even when you’re expecting exactly that. From the looming blood-red sun, haunting crones, ever-present spectre-king, mesmerising choreography and almost-magical scene changes to the kimonos, kabuki makeup and samurai warriors, the production is a sumptuous, transporting visual treat that marks out a properly good night out at the theatre (money well spent, pats on the back all round). Ninagawa’s Macbeth is like watching a masterpiece being painted and repainted in front of your eyes for hours.
It’s also a startlingly good Macbeth, and much of it’s success is down to a simple, elegant motif. Not for nothing is this known as the cherry blossom Macbeth. The device is so simple, effective and deeply embedded in the production that it starts to feel, well, obvious. The ephemeral nature of the blossom becomes a comment on the transience of life and the vain pursuit of power. The petals cascade at points throughout the play, and it’s beautiful and meaningful and moving. This isn’t Shakespeare revered, it’s Shakespeare universalised in the truest sense of the world. Performed in Japanese and set in 16th-century Japan, it’s still one of the most insight comments on political ambition I’ve ever seen.
And that’s because Ninagawa pushes things out of their comfort zone. This isn’t a hermetically sealed Macbeth that you can put it in a box marked ‘cultural curiosity’. Instead, our ears are filled with the funeral sounds of Fauré’s Requiem and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings: death lurks everywhere across the globe and across cultures in this production.
Even with ears too attuned to the traditional cadences of Shakespearean verse, the performances are still moving, although matters aren’t helped by awkwardly placed surtitles which inevitably draw attention away from the stage. But this production is so beautiful and, yes, theatrical, that listening barely matters. Approached like a ballet or piece of physical theatre it’s still a masterpiece, so at times, I give up on the words and let the movement and emotion on the stage work their magic.
Following the curtain call, the audience finds itself in the unfamiliar position of applauding an on-stage photograph of Ninagawa, and I decide I’m much being too hard on other directors. Making anything as good as this must t be really, really hard. So hard, that we’re a clapping at a photo of the one man who could.
Macbeth was on at the Barbican. Click here for more details.