Tag Archives: Macbeth

Seeing Ninagawa: Macbeth and Titus

Image result for ninagawa macbeth


This week at the Shakespeare Institute was a particularly exciting one. A delegation of colleagues from Waseda University in Tokyo came to see us and speak about the late, great theatre director, Yukio Ninagawa. Their visit coincided with the Ninagawa Company’s most recent residency at the Barbican in London, where they performed their revival of Ninagawa’s 1985 production of Macbeth (the production that first brought him to fame in the UK). The Institute and Waseda hosted a special symposium on Ninagawa at the Japanese embassy in London on Friday, and then on Saturday I was lucky enough to get to see the production myself (at last!). I won’t review it here, other than to say that it was genuinely astounding in many ways and that interested readers can find out more from Michael Billington’s expert account for The Guardian.

What I would like to do is share a bit of writing that I’ve been working on that relates to another Ninagawa production: the Titus Andronicus that he brought to the RSC in 2006. Like his Macbeth, which Billington describes as ‘unashamedly pictorial’, this Titus was a visual wonder — a fact that has led me to focus on it in an essay I’m writing on Shakespeare, the senses, and twenty-first-century performance. For this essay I’m selecting one production to illustrate the power of each of the senses in the theatre, and while Ninagawa’s productions are sensuous in many ways, it probably won’t surprise those familiar with his work that I’ve decided to choose his Titus to talk about sight.

Below is a draft of part of the section — still a work in progress, but moving in the right direction I hope!



Many contemporary directors have sumptuously embraced the possibilities of visual experience, in particular those also working in opera or film, but there is arguably no greater practitioner of the art in recent memory than the late Yukio Ninagawa. ‘Always visually ravishing’, ‘staggering aesthetic beauty’, ‘so beautiful, [it’s] painful to look at’—these are the kinds of phrases that critics in Britain, as well as Ninagawa himself in his interviews with them, have applied to the director’s work (‘Yukio Ninagawa’ 2017; Billington 2017; Ninagawa qtd in Secher 2006). It perhaps comes as little surprise, then, that he originally aspired to become a painter before turning his attention to drama in his twenties (Huang 2013).

Consider his iconic staging of Titus Andronicus, for instance, which played in Stratford-upon-Avon for a week as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2006-7 Complete Works Festival, making it ‘the first Japanese-speaking Shakespearean production to be performed in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’ (Kawai 2009: 276). A vast, icy-white stage, almost blue in its frigidity, framed the action of this vicious revenge tragedy, providing a pristine canvas onto which its gore might spill. But audiences soon found that stage blood was in short supply: in an echo of Peter Brook’s 1955 Stratford production, billowing strands of ‘Kabuki-derived’ red yarn twisted and hung from each character’s newly opened wounds, be they Alarbus’s severed limbs, Lavinia’s mouth and wrists, Chiron and Demetrius’s bulging necks, or Tamora’s back as Titus drove a knife into it in the final scene (Billing 2007: 205). The effect was at once patently artificial and uncannily shocking: against the antiseptic white of the stage, and the contorted agony that constantly emanated from the actors’ faces, these stark rivers of blood pointed like arrows to the unspeakable violence at the heart of the play. At the same time, in their strange, emblematic beauty, they released the production from the trappings of naturalism and set it adrift in a mythic, dream-like world.


Figure 1 Lavinia (Hitomi Manaka) in Titus Andronicus, dir. Yukio Ninagawa, at the Royal Shakespeare Company (2006). Photograph by Keith Pattinson for the RSC.


No scene illustrated this heady mix of brutality and beauty more vividly than that of Lavinia’s mutilation in the forest. After the close of Act One’s court scenes, which featured a towering statue of a she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the stage went entirely to black. Just a few seconds later, or at least so it seemed, lights returned to reveal a dazzling stage filled with dozens of huge, pearly lilies, set against a jet-black scrim and dappled with blueish light. This ‘scenographic … coup de théâtre’ literally set the stage for the nightmarish violence that soon followed (Billing 2007: 206). After Bassanius’s murder, and Chiron and Demetrius’s off-stage attack of Lavinia, the latter returned and staggered downstage, shrieking in horror and swathed in streams of garish red. Behind her followed Tamora’s howling sons, naked other than the bloody loin cloths that covered their genitals and the lurid strands of crimson yarn that decorated their bodies. Against their grotesque laughter, Hitomi Manaka’s Lavinia stumbled towards the edge of the stage, where she sank to the ground and raised her ribbony stumps to the sky for all to see. Positioned front and center in this perfectly composed mise-en-scène, Lavinia’s searing pain was thrown into relief—both visually and viscerally—by the ethereal beauty of the stage that surrounded her and the intense contrasts of red, white, and black that it presented. When Marcus at last entered, his niece moaned in dread, draping her long hair over her face and frantically trying to hide herself, to no avail, behind one of the set’s delicate lilies. No matter where she went, the shocks of red that issued from her arms and mouth made sure that all eyes remained fixated on her.

The stunning dissonance at work in Ninagawa’s rendering of this sequence goes some way to explaining why such a gruesome moment has become the production’s most reproduced, and implicitly most celebrated, image. Unspeakable violence and astonishing beauty sit side-by-side, with each extreme intensifying the other through the force of their juxtaposition. ‘When will this fearful slumber have an end?’ (3.1.251), Titus asks in response to the butchery inflicted on his family, but witnesses to Ninagawa’s extraordinary vision of the play have been less willing to wake from his other-worldly dreams. The fact that the majority of the production’s international audiences did not speak Japanese contributed to this sense of captivating, even hypnotic, estrangement, as well as a heavy reliance on the visual—or, as one critic put it, the experience of ‘hearing with eyes’ (Gilbert 2007: 39). With Shakespeare’s original words gone, Ninagawa’s use of colour, composition, and contrast translated the play imagistically, ‘turning [its] horror into visual poetry’ (Macauley 2016). In this sense, Ninagawa more than realized his early dreams of becoming a painter, though on a bigger and more dynamic canvas than he likely ever imagined.

This blasted heath: Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

Last month I wrote the following post for Oxford University Press’s blog, as part of the launch of the New Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. I’m very pleased to re-share it here as part of DigitalShakespeares.

Black Cuillin by Graham Lewis. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

How many children had Lady Macbeth? The great Shakespearean critic L. C. Knights asked this question in 1933, as part of an essay intended to put paid to scholarship that treated Shakespeare’s characters as real, living people, and not as fictional beings bounded by the creative works of which they were a part. “The only profitable approach to Shakespeare is a consideration of his plays as dramatic poems, of his use of language to obtain a total complex emotional response,” he wrote. Head-counting in Dunsinane was merely a distraction from the language of the play, which Knights might well have called “the thing itself.”

And yet, the question has often proven irresistible in performances of Macbeth, despite Knights’s now (in)famous denunciation. Indeed, in the opening scene of Justin Kurzel’s sumptuous new film version of Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy, we learn that its answer to Knights’s question is at least one. No words are spoken, but beneath a slate blue, striated sky, a toddler’s funeral is taking place. The grieving Macbeths, played by the majestically charismatic Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, each approach the body, taking turns to gently balance a posy on the child’s still hands, and then cover his tiny eyes with coloured stones. Their kinsmen silently watch on, each swaddled in blankets against the brutal Highland winds, before eventually lighting the funeral pyre.

Were he here today, Knights might well have seen such a choice as a painfully literal take on the marital strife that later pushes the Macbeths’ relationship to breaking point, but the truth is that the spectre of child loss has long haunted interpretations of the play. Lady Macbeth’s fierce avowal in the first act that she has “given suck, and know[s] / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks” her has repeatedly led readers, directors, actors, and audiences to wonder what has happened to this child – a question made all the more relevant by Macbeth’s anxious lines about dynasty and inheritance in Act 3. He might have seized the throne, but he still holds “a barren sceptre” and wears “a fruitless crown”.

In Shakespeare’s own lifetime, child mortality was harrowingly common. At the worst of times, as many as one in three babies died in early modern England before their first year, and many more fell victim to illness during their childhood years. By the time he wrote Macbeth, Shakespeare himself had felt the terrible grief of child loss; his young son Hamnet had taken ill in 1596 at the age of eleven, and by August of that year he had died.

Shakespeare didn’t leave any writings that reflected directly on the death of his son – in fact, he didn’t leave any writings that reflected directly on any aspects of his life – but he did represent the world-shattering pain of losing a child in his history play, King John, which he wrote that same year. Here, the bereft Constance refuses to stifle her sorrow for her son Arthur, who has been taken from her and will eventually be killed. Her furious grief becomes the one comfort and companion she can count on in her life: it “fills the room up of [her] absent child,” “puts on his pretty looks,” and “stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.” Even when he is gone, it keeps his memory alive.

In Kurzel’s film, grief likewise proves a potent, world-altering force, conjuring visions in its protagonists’ minds and cloaking the bleak, moody landscape with a heavy loneliness. This landscape itself becomes a powerful character in Kurzel’s reading of Shakespeare’s play, and the winds and fogs circling around it literally atmospheric. Like the great auteur Akira Kurosawa, who carefully selected the “fog-bound,” “stunted” slopes of Mount Fuji as the filming location for Throne of Blood, his Japanese-language adaptation of Macbeth, Kurzel turns the physical world – in this case, the steely Scottish Hebrides – into a central piece of his storytelling.

Aided by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, best known for his work on True Detective and its malevolent, Louisiana skies, the “blasted heath” of this Macbeth is something brutal and beautiful, awful and awesome. Though the film is set in a feudal, medieval Scotland, visually and emotionally it owes most to the Western. Loss, pain, and emptiness are its hallmarks, death its constant refrain. We know at the start that it presents us with a world hostile to young life, and by the end we witness how it eradicates older generations too.

– See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2015/11/justin-kurzel-macbeth-child-grief/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=oupacademic&utm_campaign=oupblog#sthash.wJvPmIqY.dpuf