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Scottish play is turning Japanese

In the circa-407 years since William Shakespeare put quill to paper, Macbeth has been adapted as a samurai drama, a Bollywood musical, gangster movies, an opera, several porn films, and a one-man-show with characters from The Simpsons. There have been young Macbeths, old Macbeths, female Macbeths, and Macbeths of practically every creed and nation that can be named offhand. With terrain that has already been ploughed by Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Roman Polanski, Giuseppe Verdi, and innumerable others, one has to ask: is it possible to find a new spin on this most iconic of tragedies?

Director Jonathan C. Dietrich says kabuki’s otherworldly atmosphere suits Shakespeare’s heightened reality.[angela clayfield / submitted]
Director Jonathan C. Dietrich says kabuki’s otherworldly atmosphere suits Shakespeare’s heightened reality. [angela clayfield / submitted]
Kitchener-Waterloo Little Theatre has found one. Their new production puts “the Scottish Play” in the decidedly un-Celtic context of kabuki, the classical Japanese theatrical form involving heavily stylized makeup and gestures.

“I was introduced to Kabuki when I was at UW Drama, just in the History of Theatre class,” said Jonathan C. Dietrich, director of the KWLT production. “I was struck by how quote-unquote ‘theatrical’ it is – sort of big and over-the-top, and they make heavy use of symbols. Also, the supernatural plays a heavy part in a lot of the kabuki stuff, and somewhere along the line it struck me that it would be a good match with Shakespeare.”

Such an otherworldly style is strangely befitting of a playwright whose characters speak in iambic pentameter, hobnob with ghosts, and murder each other with alarming frequency.

“All of Shakespeare’s characters are in a heightened state,” said Dietrich. “Whenever they go into verse, that’s a heightened state, and all of the situations are larger-than-life.”

Dietrich first encountered Macbeth as many of us did – in a high school classroom – but became more intimately familiar with the play as a University of Waterloo Drama student. “I auditioned, and I was cast as the Porter,” Dietrich remembered. “It was a ton of work – I think I ended up with six hours of one-on-one instruction with the director – and just loved it.”

Shakespeare has been a near-constant presence in Dietrich’s life – he grew up near Stratford, met his wife during a production of Cymbeline, and began dating her while acting in The Tempest. As he gets older, he finds the Bard’s work resonating in new and unexpected ways.

“The thing that struck me this time, much more than in the past, is the importance of the offspring,” said Dietrich. “There’s Duncan and his two sons, and there’s Banquo and Fleance, his son, and there’s Macduff and his family. And with Macbeth, that’s the one thing that he’s lacking. Something that’s happened in that time period is: I’ve got two children of my own. So that aspect of the story has never jumped out at me before.”

This revelation speaks to one reason why Shakespeare’s works have endured: just when you think you’ve seen them from every possible angle, along comes a new idea you had never considered before.

“I had three young girls, ages 9 through 11, show up for auditions because they were excited about the show,” said Dietrich. “They did a little witch scene as their audition. And I had never considered having three creepy kids as the witches – sort of a Children of the Corn thing.

“Now, I’m not doing that because that doesn’t match with what we’re doing here, but certainly that’s something that I’d like to do at some point.”

Kitchener-Waterloo Little Theatre’s Macbeth performs at 9 Princess St. in Waterloo, February 2, 7, 8 and 9 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 general admission, $10 for members and youth up to 18-years-old, and are available at www.brownpapertickets.com or by calling 519-886-0660.

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