As an Asian American in the performing arts, I’m constantly questioning how our industry portrays people of Asian descent on our stages. While European portrayals of Japanese people throughout history have permeated the Western performing arts like the popular “Madame Butterfly” and “The Mikado,” it has only been through the lens of the familiar Us (Westerners) looking at the exotic You (Japanese). Acclaimed Japanese stage director Yukio Ninagawa has taken a different approach, appropriating Macbeth, the great “Scottish Play,” and resetting it in Feudal Japan. Through his production, spoken entirely in Japanese with the Shakespeare text in supertitles above the stage, we see the “exotic” suddenly become very familiar. The You (Westerners) suddenly become Us (Japanese), universalizing the themes brought up in the play about the challenges of human nature when given immense power. Ninagawa’s Macbeth first premiered in 1980 in Edinburgh and was a huge success. Revived in 2015 right before Ninagawa’s death the following year, these final performances were presented as part of Lincoln Center’s 2018 Mostly Mozart Festival.

Photo © Piet Defossez

A distant gong signaled that the performance was about to begin, the lights dimmed slowly as two more chimes calmed the audience chatter. Two old women on either side of the stage entered and opened the stage proscenium doors, decorated like an ornate lacquer box. With this production set during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (late 1500s, “The Age of Warring States”) right before Japan’s unification, the Shakespeare’s classic lends itself surprisingly well to capturing the ferocity of samurai politics. The production is not the first to explore this historic period hybrid; fans of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa will recognize the similarities in style to his 1957 film Throne of Blood, also based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth and widely considered one of the best film adaptations of the original play. Ninagawa’s Macbeth shares a similar dramatic cinematic quality. As the play unfolds, we see beautiful and subtle Japanese symbolism elegantly grafted onto Shakespeare’s words. A blood red moon. Red lining in Macbeth’s royal kimonos. The layered arrangement of people onstage to show hierarchy. Translucent rice-paper screens as thick Scottish fog. A giant cherry blossom tree with ever-falling pink petals that takes on a sinister macabre quality (“the woods”). On a whole, Ninagawa’s Macbeth fully lives up to being “the most beautiful Macbeth you will ever see” – Telegraph (U.K.).

The actors all gave tour de force performances, including legendary actress Yuko Tanaka as Lady Macbeth. Tackling one of the most well-known and iconic female characters in the Western theater canon, Tanaka brought a biting conviction as an increasingly desperate and ruthless wife of a man on the verge of great power. Masachika Ichimura as the title character was bold and brilliant, and at the center of a series of beautifully choreographed swordfights to Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. The three kabuki witches were the stuff of nightmares. Despite not being performed in Shakespeare’s English, the spoken Japanese came across as dynamic and expressive with crystal clear intent, even to a non-speaker. The cast as a whole created a physical tension throughout the production that is rarely seen today in contemporary Shakespeare, giving a refreshing sense of urgency as being seen through the lens of another culture.

Photo © Piet Defossez

Culture is essentially that – a view in which to see the world. It is often through understanding other cultures that we also get the best views of ourselves. Ninagawa’s Macbeth further proves the same universals Shakespeare captured over 400 years ago – the effect of power and the corruptibility of humans who wield too much of it. I left the theater wondering, is Ninagawa’s Macbeth an expression of English culture or Japanese culture? Is it possible to be both? If we are to maintain the ideal of the great American “melting pot,” more productions like Ninagawa’s Macbeth that are able to respectfully appropriate and promote cross-cultural hybridization should be more widely encouraged and produced. And judging by how hard it was to get a ticket, it might be good business as well.