Nomura Mansai's "Suitcase Macbeth"

This article was originally published in the Japan Times newspaper on July 16 2014.

Cultures collide on the small square stage of Mansai Nomura’s pared-down “Macbeth,” in which the actor/director draws on the restrained aesthetics of noh and the agility and wit of kyōgen traditional comic theater as he transplants his version of Shakespeare’s blood-soaked Scottish play to medieval Japan.

A household name here, known as a leading kyōgen actor and for his work in contemporary theater, film and television, Nomura has since 2002 also been the artistic director of Setagaya Public Theatre (SePT) in Sangenjaya, Tokyo.

Now aged 48, he is no stranger to Shakespeare. In his late teens he appeared as a blind, flute-playing hermit boy in Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 film “Ran,” his reworking of “King Lear.” He has also played Hamlet twice, once in his early 20s and again in an acclaimed 2003 production at SePT by the renowned English director Jonathan Kent. In 2001 he toured internationally with his kyōgen adaptation of “The Comedy of Errors,” and in 2007 he directed a kyōgen version of “Richard III” titled “Kuni-nusubito.”

Nomura’s “Macbeth” premiered at SePT in 2010. Then last year, Japan’s prince of kyōgen fashioned the piece into what he calls a “suitcase” version suitable for low-budget international touring. To do so, he cut the text as translated by Shoichiro Kawai to a 90-minute production, reduced the cast to five and introduced as one of the production’s central devices a large furoshiki(traditional wrapping cloth) tailored to the size of a noh stage.

The deceivingly simple cloth works to create movable acting spaces; a sculptural layer that can be lifted and folded on the otherwise largely bare stage to evoke — almost in the way of a Zen garden — different landscapes or, when relit, the changing seasons.

The production opens with Nomura’s inserted words: “Things in the Universe. Dust in the universe. Dregs and refuse of civilization … Distortion of humans. The scum of society/human trash. Cosmic dust.” Then, in a square of light, surrounded by a dark and infinite world of space junk, he appears as Macbeth, summoned by the wicked witches who tell the noble warrior he is destined to be the Thane of Cawdor — so planting in his mind an ambition that leads to murder, madness and his wretched death. Here, Nomura reads the witches as outcasts who watch and wait as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s bloody fate takes them ever closer to that negative space.

The witches are played by Keitoku Takata, Keiji Fukushi and Keita Kobayashi, who were once part of the legendary Tenjo-Sajiki underground theater troupe led by Shuji Terayama from 1967 until his death in 1983. The trio also double up as Banquo, Macbeth’s friend and fellow general, King Duncan and the lord, Macduff, among other characters, changing costumes and acting styles to make lightning transitions between roles and worlds.

Furthermore, the same three actors even play the role of the audience in a metatheatrical play within a play in which the rise and fall of Nomura’s Macbeth and Natsuko Akiyama’s Lady Macbeth is directed by the three witches and performed by them as a thrilling entertainment.

Thus it was spring under falling cherry blossoms when they told Macbeth their prophesy. By summer, he has killed Banquo and Duncan and he and Lady Macbeth are at the apex of the social order. Yet as the cicadas’ song subsides and autumn leaves begin to fall, Macbeth fades into the snowy ground, subsumed by the mental and political tolls of succumbing to evil in pursuit of power.

As Nomura intended, this “suitcase Macbeth” traveled far. After runs in Tokyo and Osaka in 2011, it went to Seoul and New York in 2013 and was staged this year at the Sibiu Festival in Romania and in Paris before its current Japan tour.

One of Shakespeare’s darker works this may be, but in its marvelously minimalist way here, Nomura’s take casts clear light on both the recesses of some human minds and the wondrous possibilities of theater itself.

Cover photo: Macbeth (Mansai Nomura) embraces Lady Macbeth (Natsuko Akiyama) in Nomura’s version of the Bard’s Scottish play. | YOSHINORI MIDO/COURTESY OF SETAGAYA PUBLIC THEATRE.

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