What goes around comes around in Nagatsuka’s ‘Macbeth’

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Whether he likes it or not, unassuming Keishi Nagatsuka is widely seen as being foremost among the coming generation in Japan’s contemporary theater world.

Though the 38-year-old director, actor and playwright began to stand out after founding the Asagaya Spiders company in his early 20s, in 2008 he stepped right off the treadmill and took a year’s break in London to study at the National Theatre.

Since then, Nagatsuka’s talents have blossomed anew. As well as presenting several works that mix up times and places in surreal ways, he has been rethinking how to further engage his audiences and free — rather than direct — their imaginations. He often uses abstract and almost empty sets, and once created a South American stage for a kabuki play. With his “Macbeth” in Tokyo now, he’s boldly opted for a theater-in-the-round — and that’s besides this being the first of William Shakespeare’s works he’s ever tackled.

The play begins with Macbeth (Shinichi Tsutsumi) returning home as a triumphant general with his comrade Banquo (Morio Kazama) after a bloody battle. On the way they meet three witches (Kazuyo Mita, Atsuko Hirata, Noriko Eguchi) who prophesy to Macbeth’s innocent astonishment that he will soon take the throne.

Later, when King Duncan (Shu Nakajima) announces that his son Malcolm (Kazushige Komatsu) is to be the next in line, Macbeth — who’s fallen under the spell of avarice and dreams of power since the witches’ divination — kills the king and seizes the throne.

At first he and his loyal wife, Lady Macbeth — played by Takako Tokiwa, Nagatsuka’s real-life wife — rejoice at their new status, not realizing it’s all downhill from there. As they are consumed by guilt, Lady Macbeth kills herself and then Macbeth dies in battle, deserted by all his former friends and allies.

One of the four great tragedies by the Bard of Avon, along with “Hamlet,” “King Lear” and “Othello,” this tale set in medieval Scotland is widely known in Japan, and its most famous lines — “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”; “Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player” — are often quoted. Nonetheless, many productions here boldly go where none has gone before, riffing off the original to create a completely new work.

For instance, with his “Ninagawa Macbeth” in 1980, the famed director Yukio Ninagawa has explained that he sought to overcome the work’s original setting, which is unfamiliar to Japanese audiences, by staging it in samurai-era Japan on a gigantic set designed to look like a typical household Buddhist altar, on which dead warriors performed true to every word of the translated original script.

Then, in 2010, the leading kyōgen actor Mansai Nomura scored huge success with a minimalist kyōgen/noh-style “Macbeth” he created with just five actors — including himself in the title role — in which his brisk direction emphasized the unchanging foolishness of human beings. Last year, when he re-ran the play in Seoul and New York, it was much acclaimed there, too.

So ahead of its opening, it was fascinating to wonder just what Nagatsuka would do with this “Macbeth” — and whether it would work.

On entering the theater, a two-story hexagonal timber stage in the middle of the auditorium immediately caught the eye — along with burlesque-style, white-faced actors wandering around, intentionally used by the director to pique everyone’s excitement even before they sat down.

Next, two emcees (Shinpe Ichikawa and Tenkyu Fukuda) climbed onto the stage and explained what the green umbrellas attached to many seats were all about. Suffice to say that Macbeth’s end was prophesied to be near when a certain woodland moved toward him — and Nagatsuka had ensured his audience would play a part in that great climax.

Then, as the emcees were chatting to the audience, jeers of “Get a move on, let’s get started!” rang out from, it turned out, the three witches — one tall, one skinny and one plump — sitting separately among the audience on seats they returned to whenever they weren’t on stage.

So, even before the five-minute starting bell rang (a Western practice unusual in Japan), Nagatsuka had drawn the audiences into the drama to ensure they would be no mere passive spectators.

In a recent interview, in fact, the director likened the play’s audiences to “witch’s accomplices,” explaining how society in general rewards the greed and naked ambition with which those three infected Macbeth. He also said that rather than presenting Lady Macbeth as an evil influence, as most directors do, he imagined her more as a loyal and loving, supportive wife.

Consequently, he said he hoped audiences would regard the couple as succumbing to a kind of tragedy that still happens today — though generally minus the homicide.

As cast members entered and left from every quarter, including through trapdoors in the upper stage, the play moved speedily along, with the actors — in their ’90s-style chic (embroidered jerkins, flouncy shirts and trenchcoats, etc.) and odd bits of armor — denied any respite as they were constantly on show in the round.

The net result was a production geared to echo today’s immersive experience of attending a theater in England, where audiences go to actively enjoy themselves and not to doze in their seats in the dark — as often happens in Japan, especially with translated classic foreign plays

However, though it’s a shame to be critical of this really fresh, exciting and meaningful “Macbeth,” it was a wee bit regrettable that the sheer dynamism sometimes stole the limelight from the Bard’s wondrous words. Also, the staging as a whole, through both direction and acting, resulted in the leading couple appearing rather low-key and driven to their dark deed by motives only opaquely apparent — as was the reason for their ensuing insanity.

“Macbeth” runs till Dec. 29 at Theatre Cocoon in Shibuya. For details, call 03-3477-3244 or visit www.bunkamura.co.jp.