‘Dunsinane’: Post-Macbeth, Post-Modern, Shakespeare-Like


“Dunsinane,” the National Theater of Scotland’s production of David Greig’s semi-sequel to the Scottish Play, is certainly not “Brigadoon”—and it’s not “Macbeth,” either. Yet, if you take to Greig’s references, it could be Afghanistan.

It is what it is—something of a theatrical marvel in our midst now at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall.  It’s actually not like anything at all. It’s original and raw, imaginatively staged, powerfully enacted by an ensemble cast, and, freakishly in some ways, as sharp and horrific as the morning headlines.

Which is utmost strange, since it is set in 11th-century Scotland, a cold place full of bogs, warring clans and danger.    At least that’s what it appears to the grunts of the English army in its red-crossed livery, freezing, dodging arrows and broadswords, battling through the slop and moors.  We are in a story that begins at the end of Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth.”   The soldiers are being yelled at by their officers, as they try to be trees in the forest of Birnam, advancing on the king’s castle Dunsinane.       

There is a battle—which the English win.  Macbeth—laid on and low by MacDuff—is dead.  Lady Macbeth is not.  And it’s a good thing—she apparently did not commit suicide but remained to protect her son, conceived with her first husband, whom Macbeth murdered.The presence of Lady Macbeth, here called Gruach, a  vibrantly witchy, smart and strong woman with blazing red hair and a wicked sense of humor and history, and her son means nothing but trouble for the English commander Siward, a decent, blunt military type, who’s  been sent to install Malcolm as the rightful kind and maintain the peace.

You almost immediately wish Siward a “good luck on that one,” because he’s going to need it.  Not only does he not have a clue about the nuanced way of Scottish negotiation (“seems” is a big word here, as in all is not what it seems to be, not ever) but he’s seduced by the earthy, beautiful Gruach, who does not call herself the Widow Macbeth.  “She’s going to be a problem”, Siward says to Malcolm, a wine-and-women-loving monarch who likes to seem weak, so that he can go on about his treacherous business.  “Not if you kill her, now,” he suggests to Siward.

When Siward, every the practical, sane Englishman, comes up with a plan where nobody has to die—Gruach marries Malcolm, her son becomes the heir—it’s exactly the wrong idea, and results in horrible bloodshed and endless war.   Siward,  a soldier at heart begins to grow weary and heartlessly cruel.  “What did you do with the prisoners,” he’s asked after a raid on a village.  “I burned them,” he says, a response that unsettles not only the characters in the play, but the audience, given news of recent events in the Middle East.

The playwright means for us to think about our times—this is a play about conquest and invasion, strangers in a very strange land, the inability in a hit and run war of atrocities on both sides in which neither side understands the other. The Scots speak an impenetrable brand of Gaelic all their own, with words in which the consonants are at war with the vowels, and their customs and music do not soothe the occupiers.

The production is staged on a staggered-step set which looks primitive, hard on the feet, unforgiving, a giant cross with a circle from pagan days dominating the scenes. The play is not  Shakespeare—it’s closer in tone to something before Shakespeare, sometimes ritualistic and primitive in its language, but it’s also as modern as the sound of chopper blades.

Sioibhan Redmond has played this role a lot on other tours, but she never seems anything less than electric and fresh.  Gruach is a witch of sorts. While she has forceful sex appeal, she also is a purveyor of curses that appeal real in the yelling and saying, especially at plays end.  Against that kind of power,  Darrell D’Silva as Siward is all sharp edges, like a battering ram, his white hair making him at times look like a soldier as prophet. He is a straight-ahead man who gets lost in a thicket of blood.  His soldiers want to go home—some of them brave, some of them not,  some of them masters of the first chance like the wily Egham, a kind of medieval Milo Milenbender, some of them awe-struck like the everyman boy soldier played with wide-eyed wonder by Tom Gill.

Ewan McDonald is sharp and funny as Malcolm, and Helen Darbyshire makes a sad, affecting presence as the hen girl.

Being part of this production even as a spectator makes the events on stage feel strange and foreign. We know the old stories, and we have our new sagas all our own. After a while, everything is a representation of something unsettling, something both foreign and uncomfortably familiar, as it plays itself out on  a stage inundated in snowflakes.

— “Dunsinane” runs at Sidney Harman Hall through Feb. 21.


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