The Macbeths in the Prism of Noh: Ping Chong Stage's Kurosawa's Throne of Blood

The uncanny is the grease on which Macbeth skids. Like gruel dredged from the weird sisters’ cauldron—a loaded smear of newt’s eye and witches’ mummy—our supernatural captivations plunge the Scottish play its way to dusty death. The most hurtling of theatrical masterworks, it’s the briefest piece in Shakespeare’s canon, and the harshest. Composed hot on Lear’s heels, the brief reign of the Thane of Cawdor and his Lady opens in thunder and lightning on a different heath, where the witches immerse us in fate and inexplicable drives. And as if the childless, power-grabbing pair’s own dagger skills and bought-off cut-throats weren’t unsettling enough, they are the happiest of the Bard’s royal couples, as Harold Bloom notes in his vast Shakespeare study. At least until those bloodstains put her off her rocker.

Ping Chong. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival brings Throne of Blood, its version of this study in unabated conflicts, to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in early November. Adapted and directed by Ping Chong, Throne premiered in July, cannily returning the Macbeths to the stage from the lauded film of the same title by Akira Kurosawa. The film set the drama in medieval Japan, achieving unholy focus by unleashing hyper-stylized tactics of the Noh theater. Fifty years after it was made, Throne fascinates with its haste. Ritualized formality highlights the brutal swath laid by Kurosawa’s couple—General Washizu and Lady Asaji, her face fixed as if it were a Noh mask—as arguably the most potent cinematic Shakespeare.

Chong utilized his background in film and multidisciplinary performance, along with an abiding familiarity with Asia’s great theater forms—a self-professed “movie nerd” with a degree in film, his family includes generations of Chinese opera performers. “Throne of Blood is a very unusual film, not stylistically, but in intensity,” the director said via Skype from Xi’an, China, where he was touring Cathay, his collaboration of rod and shadow puppets and his own non-traditional puppetry. “Though Kurosawa is often quite intense, this film is intense from beginning to end.” Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada give harrowing performances as the arch aspirants to the royal throne. “The strange energy, I think, is a reflection of Noh, which has an austere quality, and abrupt changes of pacing,” Chong said. “Lady Asaji is very Noh, very formal, with mesmerizing movements.” Mifune’s legendary eruptions represent the abrupt side of that language.

Throne came from a theater sensibility,” Chong said. Kurosawa had directed theater productions in the late 1940s; in 1957, when Throne was made, he also filmed The Lower Depths, from the Gorky script, with a powerful ensemble warrened into a set as contained as any stage. “With that said, Throne is a film and there are things you can’t do on stage that you can do on film,” the director continued. “For instance, when you try realistic combat on stage, I don’t really believe it. I prefer poetic forms, as in the Chinese opera and the Kabuki. And I’ve never seen fighting in Noh, it’s so essentialized.” War scenes in his Throne are waged in stylized, abstracted sequences “where nobody actually touches anybody—no blood, you know?”

Sword-brandishing troops in shingled leather armor, by the costume designer Stefani Mar, recall the debt Star Wars owes to Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Mar’s imperial costumes billow and glint, with the general staff half-circled in imposing helmets as a councilor paces out a fan-bearing dance. Sound design by Todd Barton seethes and swirls, punctuated by spare string and drum themes. Chong said that Kurosawa wasn’t reading Macbeth when he re-imagined it for his film. One witch’s infamous line, “Something wicked this way comes,” is delivered before Washizu and General Miki, the Banquo he conspires with then eliminates, meet the forest spirit who’ll reveal what’s in store. Played by Cristofer Jean in a deluge of snowy hair, the spirit bends cross-legged over a loom. One wheel turns methodically, one spins slight and frantic, as if the juxtaposition of Noh method and killing propulsion were signified in that mechanical, unreal device. Clad in a more comfortable kimono, Washizu, played by Kevin Kenerly, banters to his spouse that she’s “untroubled by change.” It’s a chilling moment, heightened by the impassive stature on the actress Ako’s painted face.

Chong utilized the Kurosawa film’s English subtitles to rewrite Throne’s script. “One challenge was that the film has very little language in it,” he said. “What attracted me was the sense of action that happens without language. Writers tend to sit and write, with little sense of what it means to move in space, to be quiet on stage. That’s always existed in my artistic vocabulary.” Soundtrack is crucial in his work, which he attributes to his film background. “I treat the theatrical event in very much the way I would while making films. Throne has projections and a full sound and music score. Moments have no music, and that’s clearly for dramatic effect.” This total-theater approach dates back to his first formal presentation in 1972, a phase during which he worked with Meredith Monk for a half-dozen years.

Chong’s Chinoiserie, at BAM Next Wave in 1995, featured a vocal quartet moving into a dance quad, elaborate projections, a percussion battery delivering the score live, and the director-playwright at an enameled crimson rostrum, introducing topics in Chinese history. Cathay, which tours widely, was commissioned by the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta and developed with the Kennedy Center in 2005. Its dark, imposing set is a wall of sliding apertures and portals. “This goes back to my film and visual-arts roots: the frame of cinema,” Chong said. “With the multiple windows, I change the scale of the puppets—there are five puppets of the Empress, for example, in five configurations.” In both the medieval court tale that opens the piece and in the finale, set in today’s China of corporate deals in sleek hotels, a bobble-head clutch of gossips cameo in Chong’s windows, like clique girls indicating that only so much has changed since fabled times.

Ako as Lady Asaji in Ping Chong's Throne of Blood. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Throne of Blood is the first time Chong has worked on Macbeth, and he spoke of the story’s forward momentum as being inevitable. “I think that’s one of the things that attracted Kurosawa to it,” he said of the film legend whose centennial is being widely celebrated this year. “Throne was made 12 years after the Second World War, and he was responding to what had happened to his country and the world. Humanity’s cyclical inclination towards destructiveness is an ongoing theme for him.”
The Noh setting of the play melds timelessness with dread. Highly mannered theater models emotions while maintaining an elusive distance. The tinge of the uncanny makes us feel like this may never end, and never more so than when we’re utterly horrified. The implications of steamroller greed seem custom suited to our day, and recent seasons have seen Macbeth on Broadway, in a Stalinist epoch, and in Dumbo’s Tobacco Warehouse, pitting the Bush-Blair “free” world against Muslim insurgency. (SITI’s recent Radio Macbeth was apolitical, with some soliloquies lofted as if on airwaves, or in the imagination.) By staging Throne of Blood with the Noh conventions that specify and intensify Kurosawa’s film, Chong draws a direct line back in theater history.

Noh was formulated about a century before the Elizabethan theater forms that Shakespeare expanded. From roots in Shinto temple god iterations, warrior court dance, and Buddhist sacred pantomime, it became high art under the patronage of lords and shoguns. Elizabethan theater means were replaced long ago, with scenery added, music and danced dropped, and by the mimetics of action we term “realism.” The Noh theater was saved in the 19th century: the master Umewaka Minoru tutored Ernest Fenollosa, who’d come from the States to teach economics and was later appointed Imperial Commissioner of Fine Arts. The collection of scripts and essays, The Classic Noh Theatre of Japan, that Ezra Pound published from Fenollosa’s papers, gives an extraordinary view of an art form that placed resonant vases beneath its stages, to reverberate its ritual movements.

Chong’s Throne won’t be going for those deep frequencies, but BAM will be screening the Kurosawa film, along with a week of choice titles from his samurai epics, including Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, and Ran, his famed Lear adaptation. It won’t be in the BAM series, but The Bad Sleep Well also shows the master auteur’s appreciation for Shakespeare: In corporate 1960, Toshiro Mifune plays with sly restraint in a willful take on Hamlet’s fatal plight. 

Ping Chong’s Throne of Blood with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs November 10–13 at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn). Tickets: $25-60, visit www.bam.org or call (718) 636-4100.

Contributor

Alan Lockwood

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