When you do Shakespeare in a language other than English you are always going to lose something. His great plays carry many layers of art and meaning, all tied tightly to the elevated English that Shakespeare employed (and to a great extent invented). But removing the action of one of his mythic tragedies or fantastical comedies into a foreign culture and tongue can also, if done with art and care, be freeing. Without hope of a translation that fully reflects the playwright’s linguistic brilliance, one can approach the essence of the story, even of the characters, unencumbered by the need to either make the outdated parts of Shakespeare’s language easy to understand, or to make one’s staging and performance live up to its greatness.
Mansai Nomura‘s Macbeth, performed in Japanese and interpreted through through the lenses of the dual Japanese theater traditions known as kyogen (comic) and Noh (solemn and formal), is superb proof of my contention that taking away Shakespeare’s actual language can be an opportunity for sublime creativity as much as it can be a handicap.
In this compelling production a cast of just five tells a streamlined version of the Scottish play. The suitably forbidding atmosphere begins with smoke flowing from a door-sized circular hole in a large metallic plate, which doubles (and toils and troubles) as the witches’ cauldron. Here, the wyrd sisters don’t just pop in for a few discrete scenes, but frame the whole tale, like the Fates they really are (“wyrd” meaning “fate” in Old English). The actors portraying them lurk and scramble through many of the scenes, transforming as needed into all the secondary characters Nomura elected to retain as essential to the gloomy story. Erupting in demonic cackles at the most inopportune yet ironically appropriate moments, these bearded “sisters” (played by male actors) become the genii of the play rather than just soothsayers or, as they are sometimes mistakenly conceived, mere plot devices. These witches even close the play. (“When shall we three meet again?”)
Here’s the best proof of how well the production worked: As I recall it in order to write a description for you, I keep forgetting that it was performed in Japanese, with subtitles projected on a rather small screen to one side. Of course, knowing the story helps one get past a foreign tongue and into a show’s essence. And I did read the subtitles, though I was frequently tempted not to. (They reflected Shoichiro Kawai’s sharply distilled translation).
When, after the murder of Duncan, the Macbeths appear dressed for the first time as king and queen, they are standing in predatory majesty before a spiderweb design. But the web, as we know, is really there to catch them, for so the Fates have decreed, though in cloaked messages. I don’t know how much the subtitles are needed for anyone familiar with Macbeth to catch all this.
Nomura himself in the title role and Natsuko Akiyama as Lady Macbeth embody the violently power-hungry but unequally determined couple with a livid intensity that feels true in the high theatricality of Nomura’s conception. I’ve seen only a couple of Noh productions in my lifetime and zero examples of kyogen theater, so I can only speculate whether the show actually “references the vocalization and masks of Japan’s 600-year-old noh and kyogen traditions and melds these elements organically into Shakespeare’s 17th-century Western classic” as advertised. But I can attest that it’s 100% effective. If your city is lucky enough to host a production of this show, which has popped up on and off for several years, make the effort to catch it. The two performances at the Japan Society theater sold out.