'Dunsinane': Theater Review

Dunsinane Still - H 2015
KPO Photo

Dunsinane Still - H 2015

A canny look at the 11th Century English-Scottish conflict that unravels in the second act

Scottish dramatist David Greig's compelling sequel to 'Macbeth' draws parallels to contemporary Mid-East quagmires.

In the months following Guy Fawkes' Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in November 1605, the city of London found itself walking on eggshells. Any common Londoner was vulnerable to sudden death while shopping at the hay market or sipping a Parish ale. Out of those jitters Macbeth was born, a tragedy playing on our fear that even friends and family might be terrorists out to slit our throats in the dark. The war on terror clearly wasn’t far from David Greig’s mind when he wrote his engaging and insightful sequel to the Scottish play, Dunsinane, about an occupying army that expects to be greeted as liberators but instead is met by hostile waves of embattled clans.

A minor character in Macbeth, Siward, (Darrell D’Silva), Earl of Northumberland and general of the English forces, is central to the new play, which begins with a victory as his forces overtake Dunsinane, the Scottish seat of power. A search of the castle turns up Lady Macbeth (Siobhan Redmond), who, as it turns out, isn’t as dead as she was reported to be at the end of Shakespeare’s play. Here she calls herself Gruach (the name of the real-life figure on whom the character is based), and has a son, though he's not Macbeth’s.

And so the occupation begins. Soldiers on the ground find themselves in a cold and hostile land, frequently the target of locals who engage in paganism and other alien rituals. An anonymous soldier (Tom Gill), gives voice to their collective frustration, homesickness and creeping hopelessness, drawing parallels to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan with minimal belaboring.   

Read more 'Macbeth': Theater Review

Siward’s casually cruel puppet, King Malcolm (Ewan Donald), not so subtly requests the Queen’s head on a pike. He also wants her son hunted and dispensed with. But Siward finds Gruach beguiling, though he seems to respond to her more out of respect and admiration than desire. Gruach’s motivation is a clear and simple one — installing her son on the throne — though her methods are not. She uses spells, intimidation and of course sex to get what she wants, always calculating, especially in her dealings with Siward.

By the end of the first act, Greig has successfully navigated some artistically treacherous territory. By undertaking a sequel to Macbeth he inevitably invites comparison with the greatest playwright in the English language. But by not attempting iambic pentameter, and writing in a voice that bares little similarity to the bard’s, comparisons are rendered moot. Greig’s parallels with contemporary military quagmires are clearly illustrated without overkill, and internal and external character conflicts are rendered with genuine human complexity and clear motivation.

As the play resumes we learn that Gruach has escaped, which spells her prolonged absence from the action, leaving a yawning chasm in the second act that Greig struggles to fill. Having lost hope of a peaceful resolution, Siward goes on a killing spree, demonstrating a barbarous transition that seems to occur offstage. By the time Gruach returns for a final confrontation in a snowstorm, much of the intrigue accumulated in the first act has dissipated. It’s a misstep by Greig, though not one drastic enough to torpedo Dunsinane.

Read more 'Macbeth' Theater Review

If Gruach is the soul of the play, Siward is its beating heart, in the person of Royal Shakespeare Company veteran D’Silva. A longtime soldier, Siward is a sensible man caught in the conundrum of pursuing peace through war. “You can no more force peace into existence than you can wonder over the ocean forcing the waves flat,” Malcolm tells him. A widower who has just lost his only son, Siward has an ability to maintain his compassion as well as his commitment to peace, which enables D’Silva to render his character’s vulnerability, doubt and weariness in ways that win him easy empathy.

Although she is true to the nature of Lady Macbeth, Redmond’s Gruach is rendered more empathetic due to her underdog status in Dunsinane. As in Macbeth, she exudes a ghostly aura and doesn't flinch at the sight of blood, but Gruach’s claim to the throne feels more substantial here. Of course she and Macbeth trod a blood-sodden path to power, but at least they’re Scots. Raised in England, Malcolm is Scottish by blood only and in his own words has little concern for the people or the place beyond its capacity to serve his needs. Redmond delivers an ethereal performance that brings mystery to her scenes while also remaining grounded in her earthly struggle for control.

Director Roxana Silbert elicits uniformly strong performances from a seasoned cast, drawn from both the Royal Theatre of Scotland and the RSC. Ensemble scenes are deftly executed amid Robert Innes Hopkins’ minimalist scenery, composed of steps leading to a St. Andrew’s Cross, stage right, and a three-piece band, stage left, performing composer Nick Powell’s fine line between ancient Gaelic strains and Muslim prayer music on a cello, drum and electric guitar.

When Greig began writing Dunsinane he was thinking about Britain’s involvement in Iraq. By the time it was first produced by the RSC in 2010, Afghanistan was foremost in his mind. Scots see it as a play about themselves and the English, while Russians view it in light of the current Ukraine crisis. No doubt future audiences will recognize conflicts of their own.

The good news is Dunsinane has universal appeal. The bad news is there always seems to be enough conflict to give it fresh relevance.

Cast: Darrell D’Silva, Siobhan Redmond, Ewan Donald, Keith Fleming, Tom Gill, Toyin Omari-Kinch, Arthur McBain, Matt McClure, Alex Mann, Mairi Morrison,

Director: Roxana Silbert

Playwright: David Greig

Set & costume designer: Robert Innes Hopkins

Lighting designer: Chahine Yavroyan

Music and sound designer: Nick Powell

Presented by: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, National Theatre of Scotland, Royal Shakespeare Company