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Noh Exit

Date: Oct 24, 2008


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The superstition about the "curse of Macbeth" still lingers more than four centuries after the play's premiere. There are stories of backstage injuries, illnesses, accidents and worse.

The most famous aspect of the "curse," though, is that it is bad luck to speak the name of the play inside a theatre building, or to even say the lead character's name except when you're actually speaking the dialogue. The preferred name, if you must speak it at all, is "the Scottish play."

But we have to wonder: Do the actors in Pan Asian Repertory Theatre's new revival of Shogun Macbeth now go around calling it "the Shogun play"?

 "Oh, it will always be the Scottish play," says Tisa Chang, artistic director of Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, which last year celebrated its 30th anniversary and launched a five-year "masterpiece cycle" at the Julia Miles Theatre. Even so, some other names have been changed in John R. Briggs' 1986 adaptation of Shakespeare's tale of murderous ambition: Lady Macbeth is now Fujin Macbeth, and the title won by her husband early on is not Thane of Cawdor but Ryoshu of Akita. The King is now the Shogun, and the three weird sisters are Yojos.

It turns out, though, that the play's political scheming and ritual killing resonate very well with 12th-century Japan, as Chang points out.

"Because the 12th century in Japan was a time of warring clans, it really is the perfect time to set this play," Chang says. "I hope that we have captured some of the urgency and deep-rooted philosophy that drives Macbeth to do what he does. It gives a whole new level of illumination."

Indeed, the notion of Lady Macbeth's suicide reimagined as a seppuku, or ritual self-slaughter, makes a certain chilling sense. But the idea of transplanting Shakespeare to Shogun-era Japan did not originate with Briggs or Pan Asian Rep but with late cinematic master Akira Kurosawa, whose Ran reimagined King Lear in 16th-century Japan, and whose Throne of Blood transposed much, though not all, of the story of Macbeth to medieval Japan. The difference with Shogun Macbeth, of course, is that it's almost all Shakespeare's words, just recast in a Japanese setting.

"John Briggs was very inspired by Kurosawa's films, and Kurosawa was a genius, so he's not a bad guy to be inspired by or borrow from," Chang says. The production, directed by Ernest Abuba, who played the lead in the 1986 original, also incorporates traditional Japanese theatre techniques.

"Pan Asian specializes in intercultural productions that use a variety of stage techniques," Chang points out. "So there is some Noh movement, and a little comedic passage during the Porter's speech using Kyogen, which I call ‘Japanese vaudeville.' It works beautifully."

Michael G. Chin's fight choreography will obviously incorporate the traditional katana, or "samurai" sword. "There are a few strategic fight scenes that are very spectacular, but nothing gratuitous," Chang points out.

The fight scenes are often one reason productions of Macbeth suffer injuries, seemingly confirming the legend of the curse. And though it wasn't due to an injury, this revival's original Macbeth had to bow out, and the actor originally cast as Banquo, Kaipo Schwab, had to step in. "He's like a bear," says Chang admiringly.

But what about that curse?

"I'm hoping we can lift it," says Chang hopefully. "After all, we've got three witches—that should be enough to turn it around!"

Click here for more information about Shogun Macbeth.