‘I felt Ninagawa sitting there’: Macbeth in Hong Kong marks anniversary of visionary theatre director’s death

Cast performing the late Japanese theatre director’s celebrated take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth feel he’s with them as they prepare for play’s opening at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 June, 2017, 1:17pm

A spectre looms large over the Ninagawa Company’s performance of Macbeth this week in Hong Kong, and it isn’t Banquo’s ghost.

“I felt Yukio Ninagawa sitting there when I went inside the [Hong Kong] Cultural Centre theatre for the first time,” says Masachika Ichimura, the veteran Japanese actor who plays the title role in the Hong Kong production. “If I feel nervous about this performance, it isn’t because it coincides with the first anniversary of his death. It is because I still expect him to jump up and tell me off if I do anything wrong.”

Yuko Tanaka, the actress who plays Lady Macbeth, also feels the enduring spirit of the late director.

“I was rehearsing for another performance of Macbeth four years ago and the director suddenly came up to me and said, ‘I will always be here and be with you.’ I will never forget that moment,” she says.

Ninagawa, the Japanese theatre director who died at the age of 80 in May last year, was one of the most respected and unusual interpreters of Greek tragedies and Shakespearean plays of his generation, captivating audiences around the world with his combination of classical Japanese theatre and Western drama.

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His version of Macbeth, first performed outside Japan in 1985 at the Edinburgh Festival, moved the Scottish setting to the Azuchi-Momoyama period of Japan in the late 16th century. Macbeth is a Samurai and Great Birnam Wood is a forest of cherry blossoms.

To the audience in Hong Kong, another standout feature of Ninagawa’s Macbeth is that it stars one of the most beloved television personalities of the 1980s. Tanaka played the lead character in Oshin. Shown on television throughout Asia, Oshin became a popular symbol for the perfect woman, the very opposite of Lady Macbeth.

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“I don’t find it difficult to play Lady Macbeth. In fact, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth could be any couple anywhere who made bad decisions behind closed doors. It is really the most ordinary story,” she says. “What I found challenging at first was the formal movements required of traditional Japanese theatre. It is not easy balancing formality with realism.”

Ichimura believes that Ninagawa’s treatment of Macbeth is fundamentally different from how he staged other Shakespearean plays. It is entirely “Nipponised”.

“When I act in Richard III and Hamlet, I feel they are plays by the Bard. The Ninagawa Macbeth is different,” he says. “The original lines have really been cut back and the setting of a Buddhist altar really transforms it. I see it as an entirely Japanese play.”

Ninagawa Macbeth, Ninagawa Company, Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, June 23-25, 2017. All tickets sold out but eight tickets with restricted view will be available for sale at the price of $160 at the box office of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre from 10am on the day of performance on a first come, first served basis.