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A CurtainUp Review
By Jerry Weinstein

My delusions are beginner’s fears. I need experience. We are yet but young indeed.
--- Macbeth to Lady Macbeth

Ukio Ninagawa's Macbeth
Ukio Ninagawa's Macbeth
(Photo:Seiji Egawa)
Master craftsman Yukio Ninagawa and BAM are a match made in avant-garde heaven. One can easily see how this maverick -- who has been directing outré productions from Shakespeare’s catalogue since 1974--would be welcome back for his second Macbeth in Brooklyn. With this treatment of the play, as faithful as it is to the original text, his emphasis is new: Ninagawa has jettisoned past references to the Edo-era civil wars, modernizing them with nightmarish battlefields that recall Apocalypse Now’s Vietnam. Above all, this production is about an end of innocence: "If there is a last day of youth, this is the story of that night," he says.

Youth will be served. Ninagawa’s casting of two young Japanese pop stars, Toshiaki Karasawa (Macbeth) and Shinobu Otake (Lady Macbeth) is a maneuver not without risk. Here in the States, it would be akin to casting *NSYNC star Lance Bass and diva Christina Aguilera as laird and lady. While the leads are often upstaged by Naomasa Musaka --who spews invective with blind fury--and the coven of witches who expertly boil and toil, the leads begin to cast their own spell after their first few scenes. It is easy to see that Karasawa was the Japanese voice of Toy Story’s Woody; his MacBeth is definitely out of his depth. Otake, however, is an ingénue and fragile flower – more Laura in Glass Menagerie than a Lady of destruction.

The set and staging for this production are superb. While the supertitles allow one to follow the play in its original form, Ninagawa’s actors, choreography, and staging demand your full attention. What comes of this is not the usual verbal acrobatics of iambic pentameter, but an observance of the tale itself and intentionality. The Gilman Opera House allows for a bit of military pageantry with Ninagawa’s full use of the aisles as soldiers march onto stage. The onstage set is fashioned of glass mirrors, which both open up the play and permit layers of literal reflection and glimpses into a madness that rots away both King and Queen. Ninagawa’s choice of music is equally catholic. There is Bach in the House, but there are also melodies from the Bulgarian choir, as well as the music from the world music duo Dead Can Dance, whose opening piece "The Host of Seraphim," is the perfect accompaniment to the bewitching of the "three weird sisters" (as they are known in Japan).

While Shakespeare is Japan’s most revered classical playwright, it was not until Ninagawa that any liberties were taken with his text. In recognizing the "Japan-ness" in Macbeth, Ninagawa has foregrounded many of the play’s universal themes. Ninagawa is frequently asked to reconcile his Macbeth with NYC’s 9/11. During the BAMdialogue that preceded the evening’s production, Ninagawa answered the question obliquely offering that "perhaps like Prospero I want to unite the world and the people." Certainly, it is reassuring that after the desolation of Macbeth, that we find a new optimism and a time for peace.

The director is in the midst of directing all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays at Tokyo’s Saitama Arts Theater, including a Pericles which will be staged at London’s Royal National next March. We eagerly await his return.

Written by William Shakespeare/The Ninagawa Company
Directed by Yukio Ninagawa
Cast: Toshiaki Karasawa, Shinobu Otake, Naomasa Katsumura, Makoto Tamura
Sound Design:
Masahiro Inoue
Set Design: Tsukasa Nakagoshi
Lighting design: Tamotsu Harada
Costume Design: Lily Komine
Fight Choreography: Masahiro Kunii
Staging Director: Eisuke Shiraishi Running time: 3 hours, one intermission
Presented in association with Japan Society
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, 718.636.4100 or web site
Tickets are $25, 50
Performances Fri and Sat, 7.30pm
Reviewed by Jerry Weinstein based on December 5, 2002 performance.
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