A Japanese `Macbeth' in Scotland. Samurais replace Highlanders; Birnam Wood becomes cherry blossom trees

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Standing ovations at the Edinburgh Festival are not to be taken lightly. After vociferous accolades for 10 days in Amsterdam, the Toho Company of Japan might reasonably have expected more-restrained applause in Scotland. But it was quite wrong: Its remarkable production of ``Macbeth'' was received here with something approaching rapture. The great virtue of this ``Macbeth'' (directed by Yukio Ninagawa), from a largely English-speaking audience's point of view, is that it so superbly compensates for the one key element inevitably sacrificed in translation: Shakespeare's consummate language. With no way of telling how adequate the Japanese translation might be, one falls back on whatever forms of sign language are offered. In this case, the production is visually astounding in terms of stage design, lighting, and costume, but above all in

the language of gesture (Lady Macbeth's hand-washing is unforgettable), bodily expression, and facial mime.

The feel of the production is close to that of Shakespeare's play. His imagery, his ``seeling night,'' his ``secret, black and midnight hags,'' his ``blood will have blood,'' are transmuted into a rich phantasmagoria of black, gold, and crimson. The ``unreal'' elements -- visions and specters and the intensifying dream world of the protagonists (the murderers of sleep) -- are handled magically by staging substantial parts of the action on the far side of a translucent grid-cum-screen. This distancing fro m the audience also vividly accentuates the pictorial -- and Japanese -- nature of the production.

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For all of its faithfulness to Shakespeare's narrative line, this magnificent production is ``Macbeth'' seen through Japanese eyes. Medieval Scotland has turned into 16th-century Japan, samurai warriors replace Highlanders, Birnam Wood becomes a grove of white-blossomed cherry trees.

In fact, cherry blossoms pervade the play, their petals fluttering down like snowfall and whirling around the floor of the stepped stage in response to the actors' movements. The program note observes that the Japanese attitude toward cherry blossoms is ``ambivalent'' -- ``a sense of beauty mingled with apprehension.'' But the Edinburgh audience gasped at its unexpected beauty. Such confetti and freshness seemed at first a lighthearted symbol for a play interwoven with doom. Perhaps it might even have b een an ironic counter to the weary Macbeth's ``sear, the yellow leaf.'' But finally it contributed in an intriguingly unfamiliar way to the redeeming sense of poetry which is the supreme achievement of the play in Shakespeare's words.

Mikijiro Hira (the ``Olivier'' of Japan, I was informed) gave an eye-riveting central performance. The altering emotions and tragic weakness of the man are lifted, as they should be, into a moral dilemma of universal proportions, but without losing Macbeth's vulnerability. Despite the incomprehensibility to non-Japanese-speakers, this is due to his obviously impressive vocal range and expressiveness. But his projection of language produced its own effect (as a great opera singer can) by a sonority, th ough wordless, of gusto, anguish, tenderness, or misery. And in Japanese acting of this caliber, a potent facial eloquence more than supports the words.

Komaki Kurichara's Lady Macbeth is similarly invested with an almost shocking capacity to cross from puppetlike impassivity to extremes of intense feeling. For once, one really feels that the source of the fated couple's diabolical act of regicide, against all nature, is to be found in their attachment to each other: Something in the performance of both leading players makes her power over his better judgment credible in human, rather than merely supernatural, terms (though certainly the wit ches are splendidly choreographed and splendidly nasty). Nor is it simply Lady Macbeth's cruel play on his pride as a warlord which prevails over, and undoes, her husband.

In this production, the couple's complicity is seen to be their downfall because it is the distorted character of their marriage itself that changes into an evil form of conspiracy. The way Macbeth embraces the cloak of his wife, brought to him by the messenger announcing her death, becomes the touching focal point of this interpretation -- again a visual, instead of a verbal, emphasis, but no less poignant for that.

Thus the deserved ovation for a version of one of Shakespeare's great tragedies, in a language impenetrably different from his, which still sheds fresh light on its most complicated paradox (though at the same time a portion of that applause must have stemmed from the production's electrifying fights!).

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