“Dunsinane” at the Hampstead Theatre

By the final scene of Macbeth, the tyrant is dead, justice is served and the witches’ prophecy fulfilled. So what happens next? Leaping at the topicality of an occupying English army, David Greig’s sequal, Dunisane, asks questions that seem relevant to our time.

There are some surprises, but the plot is deliberately familiar. The occupying force professes the noblest of intentions, to bring peace and stability to a fractured country, underneath the motive of security for their homeland. But the exit strategy goes wrong, the local culture is misunderstood and the battle for hearts and minds lost.

More specifically, as befits the interests of a playwright, this is a battle of language. The words politicians use conflict with the soldier’s vocabulary. The Scots struggle with the English tongue and use the English’s ignorance of Gaelic against them. The occupiers fail to see the poetry in the situation – the drama of revenge or the tragedy of loss, which Greig’s language artfully struggles to convey.

This is best seen in Sam Swann’s role of a boy soldier who recites the letters he writes home to his mother. Leaving aside the idea of an infantry man of the time writing at all, let alone with such a contemporary tone, the writing has an authenticity that works wonderfully in dramatic terms.

This boy soldier is also an essential foil for the more central characters. Greig has set himself the ambitious task of creating roles that would not seem out of place on a Shakespearean stage – the kind of roles that have a life of their own.  He is fortunate to have a cast that also embraces this challenge.

Jonny Phillips plays Siward, the English commander in charge of the occupation. His problem is that he is a good man and Phillips does a superb job in displaying this nobility alongside making his character a true man of action.  Holding true to his convictions to the point of mania, he is outwitted at most turns by the Scots.

Brian Ferguson’s Malcolm is the King established by the English. The consummate politician in many ways, although his deadpan admissions of selfishness raise a laugh, it is he who truly understands the workings of power.

Just as politic but with far more passion is Siobhan Redmond’s Gruach. She embodies this royal role with dignity but also an eye to the vulnerability of her position, playful in her sexuality and willing to manipulate her reputation. Redmond also adds a conviction about her character’s culture that the long removed Malcolm can only play at. She shares touching moments with Siwald as both characters have lost children. Gruach is reunited with the body of hers in one of those deeply moving yet grotesque moments that seems very Shakespearean and which Redmond manages to pull off.

The first of the RSC’s forays into the Hampstead Theatre, it is no surprise to see those trademark crowd scenes the RSC does so well. No surprise, but it’s no small achievement nonetheless. Roxanna Silbert directs her cast to make numbers appear huge and has clearly imbued a sense of camaraderie in this company appropriate to a military drama.  For while political commentary is present, above this, Dunisane is a good story, well produced. What happens after Macbeth? Plenty. It seems that his death is just the beginning.

Until 6 March 2010

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 18 February 2010 for The London Magazine

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