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Yukio Ninagawa’s Macbeth review at Barbican, London – ‘beautiful, horrific and deeply moving’

Yuko Tanaka and Masachika Ichimura in Macbeth at London's Barbican Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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The death of the great Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa in 2016 robbed the international theatre scene of one its most original and visionary talents. This revival of the groundbreaking ‘cherry blossom’ Macbeth that made his name 30 years ago is a tribute to his life and career as well as an affirmation of the immutable power of Shakespeare.

Set in 16th-Century Japan, it bears some resemblance to Kurosawa’s samurai Macbeth film Throne of Blood. But Ninagawa manages to make connections with western audiences through the use of music – notably Barber’s Adagio for Strings and the Sanctus from Faure’s Requiem.

A vast set of gold and black panelled doors slide open to reveal the scenes beyond. When closed, their windows offer a detached view of the scene behind them: the three witches, kabuki actors in white make-up and elaborate costumes appear behind them at first, as does Banquo’s ghost sitting on a throne doused in a blood-red light. Lit for maximum atmosphere, the spectral elements are rarely less than terrifying, including the prophetic visions conjured by the witches for Macbeth.

The violence is both ritualistic and realistic – each slash of a sword blade is accompanied by the whooshing sound of steel through air or flesh. The murder of Macduff’s family is particularly shocking as his young son is unseamed from top to toe and skewered by black-clad ninja assassins.

There are some infelicities in the English surtitles on either side of the stage but that hardly matters. The acting and the imagery convey the story like the best narrative ballet.

Among the powerful performances, Masachika Ichimura’s Macbeth is a huge presence, never better than in the “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech and in the final scenes as he strides around the castle dispatching all comers in the knowledge that he is unkillable. Yuko Tanaka’s Lady Macbeth is especially compelling in her sleepwalking scene and Keita Oishi’s Macduff unbearably affecting when reacting to the news of his family’s slaughter.

As the white cherry blossoms fall like snow in a premonition of death, it is clear that the power of this profound, operatic spectacle is undiminished. Beautiful, horrific and deeply moving.

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Three decades after its UK premiere, Yukio Ninagawa’s samurai Macbeth retains its power to astonish and enthral