For a brief moment, Malcolm looks like he’s going to throw up. Macduff has just rushed up the center aisle of the theater and deposited Macbeth’s severed head at Malcolm’s feet, hailing him as the rightful King of Scotland. The young king gapes at the bloody skull and blanches, but his disgust quickly fades. As he shifts his weight, sitting upright and firm, Malcolm assumes the regal posture his retinue of gore-splattered soldiers expects, and he confidently begins to govern. Malcolm promises to punish the “cruel ministers” of “this dead butcher” and, in a chilling echo of the early scene in which his father, Duncan, honored Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor, he doles out promotions to those who fought on his side. The curtain falls while he is still talking.
In Yukio Ninagawa’s riveting version of Macbeth, regime change brings little promise of peace. Malcolm’s capacity to steel himself—to accede to the prevailing values of vengeance and aggression—assures that the cycle of violence will spiral ever more furiously. This is a Macbeth that indicts a whole society, not just a tragic individual carried away by vaulting ambition. Despite some occasional excesses, Ninagawa’s production has been acclaimed, deservingly, for its high spectacle—thrilling acrobatic battle scenes, painterly lighting, a mirror-paneled stage that creates illusions of crowds and smoky chaos. But his most exciting innovations come from the ways the spectacle opens up new readings.
Traditional interpretations, distinguishing between the honorable act of killing in war and the monstrous deed of murder, focus, of course, on Macbeth and his wife as greed drives them inexorably to evil. But on Ninagawa’s war-ravaged stage, the Macbeths are just like everyone else—only more so.
The production opens with a fierce battle amid high rice paddies. Swords flash above the plants, and the pointy straw hats of scattering civilians can be discerned between their leaves. To the buzz of helicopters, the roar of drums, and the Balkan-sounding chants of a woman’s distant voice, bodies are flung about and soldiers, bedecked with red strings that hang like wounds on their samurai-inflected garments, rush into combat. Vietnam, Bosnia, and feudal Japan are evoked, while the relentlessness of the carnage moves those specific references toward an unnerving aura of every-war. By the time Macbeth justifies his own actions by asserting that “blood will have blood,” his remark has become a defining truism of the realm.
The impact of a culture of war is made most palpable in Ninagawa’s casting of the leading couple: young, popular Japanese stars Toshiaki Karasawa and Shinobu Otake. Their Macbeths are gorgeous, sexy, and on the cusp of adult life—and their world has left them no moral compass. If Macbeth is handsomely rewarded for cutting foes from nave to chops on the battlefield, why shouldn’t his political rise continue the same way?
That moral system is bound up in Macbeth with a cult of masculinity, which Ninagawa emphasizes here through large battalions of grunting warriors, whose grueling fights with heavy swords are long and exhausting. The text is filled with paeans to manhood proved in combat—a man’s wounds “smack of honor,” to be cut down in battle is to “die like a man,” to grieve is to “play the woman,” and so on. Lady Macbeth’s call to the gods to “unsex me here” seems in Ninagawa’s production not so much the unnatural wish of a grotesque woman, but the obvious desire of a wife who wants to enter the game and play by the prevailing rules.
At 67, Ninagawa has now made three Macbeths. The second, presented by BAM in 1990, had a more stately specificity since it was more grounded in Kabuki, set in 16th-century Japan, and visually built around a motif of cherry blossoms. The new production, too, borrows from Japanese tradition, but in bent ways that blend with Western styles: Ninagawa uses the aisles in the auditorium like hanamichi entrance ramps, symbolically dangles red ribbons over the stage like stalactites of blood, lets actors shift between psychological acting in intimate scenes and formal declamation in others, and mixes Bach, Balkan, and Bulgarian recordings with live drumming to create a textured soundscape. The result is a powerful sense of universality—not so much of Shakespeare, but of the futility of war.