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‘Is this a dagger which I see before me’: Five Asian adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that will haunt and beguile you

‘The Scottish play’ tells the tale of naked ambition, bloody murder, guilt, chaos and supernatural interference – themes which profoundly resonate with Asian audiences

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 June, 2017, 9:17am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 June, 2017, 4:44pm

William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth has been performed in translation many thousands of times around the world.

But the story – of family ties, murder, duty, courage, corruption, betrayal, leadership and the supernatural – has found a particular resonance on this continent in the past 70 or so years, and some of Asia’s most serious directors have created their own adaptations.

Each includes a bloody weapon, a wife who in her guilt tries ineffectually to clean the blood off her hands, and a prophecy which says the protagonist will not topple until nature does something impossible and has an entire forest move from one place to another.  But each is set in a different time, a different place and a different culture from the 10th century Scottish king who inspired Shakespeare to write Macbeth.

Here are some of the top Asian adaptations in contemporary history.

Wang Deming, play and then film, China, 1944

“Is this a treasured sword [baojian] which I see before me?” asks the protagonist Wang in Li Jianwu’s 1944 play Wang Deming, before he kills his royal quarry.

Within months of being written, the play was made into a film directed by Huang Zuolin, premiering in Shanghai in April 1945. This was four months before the Japanese surrendered. It was, apparently, a comfort to those who saw it, a call to arms and a reminder that the greatest tragic eras will finally end, and that murder will not, in the end, go unpunished.

Li was a famous playwright in China in the 1930s. He had previously refused to work for any of the theatres that operated under the Japanese, but this version of Macbeth – set in the Five Dynasties period (907 to 960AD) – allowed him to make theatre into resistance, and show a callous and chaotic world to people suffering under a callous and chaotic regime. Yet, all the while, he was able to pretend he was writing about history, and so stay safe from retribution.

Throne of Blood, film, Japan, 1957

A few years before he died, the American-born British resident poet T.S. Eliot was asked what his favourite film was. His answer was perhaps surprising. Throne of Blood, he said.

This is a Noh version of Macbeth, co-written and directed by the great Japanese director Akiro Kurosawa, set in the Castle of the Spider’s Web on Mount Fuji in the 14th century. Macbeth is a Samurai general, Lady Macbeth a Samurai wife, and with not a word of Shakespeare’s original text.

There is a moment towards the end of the film in which Toshiro Mifune, who plays the general named Washizu, realises that after all the killing and betrayal, it is now his turn to die. This section has had even more of a cult following than the rest of the film.

Because the arrows fired from the courtyard below were real, they were fired by professional archers. And, although the actor had protection in his costume, his look of terror is, apparently, genuine, as the real arrows whizz around him.

Veeram, film, India, 2016

Folk songs in northern Kerala tell of a warrior called Chandu Chekavar, or Chandu the betrayer, who kills his cousin in a duel, after replacing the metal hilt with a wooden one that would fail. There is a dagger, there is a strong woman, there is a forest and there is revenge.

It seemed, for award-winning south Indian film director Jayaraj Nair Rajasekharan, to be the perfect story to link with Macbeth.

He worked with a historian to do substantial research into the myths of the Malabar Hills, hired Bollywood star Kunal Kapoor – who did several months of intensive training in Kerala’s ancient and highly visual martial art of kalaripayattu – and started filming in 2016 in a mixture of Malayalam, English and Hindi.

The result, which was released in cinemas in India in February, is a colourful epic with Hollywood colourist Jeff Olm,  and full of flying swords and great temples. It had excellent reviews from critics throughout.

In Kapoor’s huge warrior bulk, Veeram shows the plight of someone who could have been good, but is tempted by power – and fails.

Tang Shu-wing’s Macbeth, play, Hong Kong, 2015

In Hong Kong’s 2015 version of Macbeth, a modern man and woman are transported in a dream to ancient China, in which they are Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Director Tang Shu-wing chose a minimalist Cantonese translation for his interpretation. Lady Macbeth’s dramatic monologue about trying to wash her hands of blood, which in Shakespeare’s original is many lines long, in Cantonese is a very simple, and chilling statement that “it won’t wash out”.

Ninagawa’s Macbeth, play, Japan, 1980s

When this production, by one of Japan’s most celebrated theatre directors, Yukio Ninagawa, first went to Britain in 1985 as one of the headline events at the Edinburgh Festival, it caused a sensation.

The actors performed in kimono, on a stage where the main set was a huge Buddhist altar, and some of the action occurs, like a dream, behind a huge geometric Japanese screen.

Ninagawa died in 2016 at the age of 80. He had wanted to create versions of all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, and the key Greek tragedies, and he completed almost all of them.

His Macbeth was revived in 2015 and will be performed in Hong Kong for the very first time this month for three performances from June 23 to 25. It will be part of the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China, before going on to Europe in the autumn.

There is one scene in particular that audiences will be waiting for.

In Shakespeare’s original Macbeth, the ambitious king knows his time has finally come when he sees an entire woodland moving towards his castle at Dunsinane.

This is not only the fulfillment of the witches’ warning – that only when this seemingly impossible thing happens and a forest moves will Macbeth fall – and a sign that even nature is conspiring against him, but also a way that his enemy’s soldiers, concealed beneath great branches, can get close enough to threaten him.

In many versions, the movement of the trees is rather underplayed, coming second to the huge transformations happening to Macbeth’s heart, as he realises what he has done. Some directors try to get away with a few desultory twigs.

But under Ninagawa’s direction, the forest is of marvellous cherry trees in full blossom, and the result is highly visual, magical and apparently unforgettable.

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