It is now officially a requirement that I go see whatever the National Theatre of Scotland sends “across the pond” and I sincerely hope the Shakespeare Theatre Company maintains their current relationship. Out of the 4 shows that I’ve seen over the last several years, Blackwatch, The Undoing of Prudencia Heart, Macbeth (Lincoln Center) and now Dunsinane all have been excellent original pieces of theater. And I think David Grieg, who also wrote wonderful The Undoing of Prudencia Heart, is going to have to go on my list of modern playwrights to follow. This play was both engaging and entertaining and annoyingly thought provoking (that’s a good thing).
The play begins roughly where Shakespeare’s Macbeth leaves off, with Great Birnam Woods marching to high Dunisnane and with Macbeth’s head on a pike. Where it deviates from the original story is that Lady Macbeth is not dead (not a spoiler) and there is a fantastic and not unfunny speech by Malcom that explains why it “seemed” she was dead. Mr. Grieg’s play does however continue the oft supposed precept that Lady Macbeth (Gruach, is her given name in the play) is the real strength and power behind the throne and that defeating Macbeth does little to secure peace in Scotland nor quash the dispute over who is the rightful heir.
The conflict of play can be distilled down to a battle of wills between two people, Gurach and Siward and it does great justice to Mr. Grieg’s skills as a writer that both these characters, despite some decidedly questionable actions, are never unlikable; they are actually quite likable and the play is never better than in the scenes they have together. It doesn’t hurt that their actions, within the constructs of their world and how they understand it are justifiable. Gurach is repelling a foreign invader who wants to install a usurper on her son’s, and her clan’s, throne and rob her son of his rightful place and even his life. Siward is a soldier tasked with a mission to unify and bring peace to disparate nation and to serve the greater good. Two powerful people equally matched in wit and wills, it’s makes for a very engaging first act.
Our Lady Macbeth, Gurach, is quite the Woman, never does she waver from her purpose, never does she seem to lack confidence in her ability to achieve her will and never does she seem not to be in control; you always feel she somehow has the upper hand even as a prisoner. She personifies the Scotland that befuddles the invading army; she is never as she seems, she wraps lies in truth and truth in lies; she is beautiful, charming and vastly deadly. Even in loss she is victorious.
Siward, is the classic prototype of the noble soldier. He is tasked with a mission and honor demand that he deliver and he makes every attempt to complete the mission with his honor intact. He is the soldier tasked by politicians to achieve impossible deeds. Invade a country and bring peace, as if peace is achievable with force of arms and foreign invaders will ever be welcomed as liberators. All forces work against Siward, and you feel sympathy for him even as he cuts a bloody swath though the country. He is saddled with trying to make peace with a culture he does not understand, allies who speak in riddles, and an army whose purposes often cross that of the mission, it is enough to drive anyone to the brink of destruction.
The play draws very obvious parallels between this ancient story and current conflicts around the world. Can you think of anywhere else in the world foreign armies are simultaneously welcomed and reviled, where we have little understanding of the culture, where we don’t really know what victory will look like? It’s one of those plays that lingers in you mind long after the curtain has dropped.
The cast is wonderful, Siobhan Redmond and Darrell D’Silva are wonderful as our respective Gruach and Siward. Their scenes together are the best part of the play. And Ewan Donald performance as Malcom was excellent, he gave the perfect portrayal of a politician, and while you did not want to like him it was hard to deny his perspective even though he is the last ally one would ever want.