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Macbeth in Japan? Too Cool. Hot

Matthew Barbot
Written by Matthew Barbot     December 01, 2008    
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Macbeth in Japan? Too Cool.
  • Macbeth
  • by William Shakespeare
  • Adapted by John R. Briggs
  • Pan Asian Repertory Theatre
  • November 4 - December 7, 2008
Acting 3
Costumes 4
Sets 4
Directing 3
Overall 4

The first challenge in adapting Macbeth to a Japanese setting would be immediately apparent to most bardolators and film students alike: it must work hard not to just be Throne of Blood. The challenge of any reviewer sent to see such a production is similar: he must work hard not to constantly compare it to Throne of Blood. John R. Briggs must have known comparisons would be inevitable when he set about writing his adaptation, Shogun Macbeth, but he has succeeded in creating a show that stands on its own.

Unlike Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Briggs’ play seeks not only to preserve the story of Macbeth, but the text as well, bringing us Shakespeare’s story of unchecked ambition and righteous vengeance transposed on feudal Japan. The Pan-Asian Repertory’s production of Shogun Macbeth wins points for the exotic with its beautiful costumes and impressive set—dominated by a Buddhist shrine—but it falls down where many adaptations do in that it never fully explores its new setting to see what it may uncover. Too often, Briggs seems to settle for word substitution: while royal titles and place names are necessary changes, might it not make more sense to change the names of the characters to Japanese counterparts before bothering to replace the word “dagger” with “shoto,” a Japanese short-sword? Did warriors in feudal Japan not use daggers, and does their word for them not roughly translate to, well,“dagger”? The use of the word katana, however, is effective because of the reverence attached to this particular weapon—it's not just any sword. Replacing “God” and “Lord” with “Buddha” and “Heaven” with “Nirvana” is more problematic in that these Buddhist concepts differ from the Christian ones they’re standing in for in substantial enough ways to not always make sense in context and, once again, seem like they were written in for the sake of making the play sound Japanese rather than any thematic reason.

In a play already so much about honor and loyalty, I am disappointed that the sheer depth of Macbeth’s crime is not examined through a Japanese lens. To have Macbeth kill his Shogun in a society where the death of a shogun often means the ritual suicide of the samurai who serves him opens up wonderful opportunities to explore the anathema attached to his betrayal—betrayal is bad in Scotland, sure, but it’s unthinkable in Japan. Unfortunately, this particular production often shies away from deeper cultural exploration.

This is a shame, because there are a number of places where the production does make wonderful use of its setting. The codified body language of the Japanese court does a lot of work in the way of expressing how characters feel about one another: the fear and respect one character has for another in any given moment is vividly shown in how low he bows, or whether he merely takes a knee or goes to all fours. This is used to greatest effect with Macbeth and his wife; their shows of respect and deference often cover their true meanings or motives, and the moments when Fujin (Lady) Macbeth’s (played by the enthralling Roseanne Ma) cutting words are at odds with her demure affectations are electrifying to watch. The witches have become the yojos of kabuki theatre, and under Ernest Abuba’s direction, they seem to inhabit a world governed by kabuki’s conventions. When Fujin Macbeth invokes their power for her first monologue, as well as her sleepwalking scene, she enters fully into this world, immersing herself in kabuki’s stylized movements. In the play’s most chillingly effective scene, she delivers her sleepwalking speech, eyes rolled back with a white streak in her hair. We can see in her face and her motions that she has left this reality behind. This separation between the material and the spirit worlds—one that exists stylistically even when the two worlds share the stage and interact—serves to underscore the supernatural elements of Macbeth in striking ways. Lastly,while Shakespeare’s text has been abridged, scenes are framed with appearances by an elderly storyteller, imparting the audience with relevant wisdom and parables, a choice that makes us look at Macbeth as a fairy tale and a fable; we should not be content merely to hear the play, but should leave the theater with its lessons.

Kaipo Schwab’s Macbeth is at his best when he is restrained—early on his ranting and raving gets in the way of the character’s descent; if Macbeth is routinely out of control, the moments where he is seen to be slipping lose their potency. I said I wouldn’t make any Throne of Blood comparisons, but I will here: the beauty of Toshiro Mifune’s performance in the film is the sense one gets that he is constantly struggling against his rage, though it escapes him from time to time. As such, Schwab seems more able to channel Mifune’s brilliance in his quieter moments, where his mania bubbles just below a veneer of control. It’s when he’s loud that he merely seems, at times, to be doing a Toshiro Mifune impression, trademark grimace and all. By the time he reaches “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” however, Schwab is in top form. The supporting cast is uniformly solid, particularly Ariel Estrada’s Banquo and E. Calvin Ahn’s Macduff. Keoni Scott’s Duncan is lovely and endearing, but his accent gets in the way of his speeches, at times. I admit this has more to do with my ear than his acting but, that in mind, perhaps the director could have done more to compensate for the sake of those like me.

Overall, while I think the Pan-Asian Repertory’s production of Shogun Macbeth could have gone farther, that’s only because the production shines in those places where it does dare to push the envelope and try new things. There is certainly more good than mediocre, and the allure of setting Macbeth in feudal Japan cannot be denied (which the impressive fight choreography unquestionably demonstrates). It’s a worthy exercise, to be sure, and where it succeeds it does so in spades. Still, with Kurosawa’s film as a proof-of-concept, this production could have taken more risks with the material.

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