David Greig’s provocative new play reclaims the Scottishness of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” even as it suggests this story of 11th century tribal warfare has distinctly contemporary resonances. “Dunsinane” starts where Shakespeare’s tragedy ends — – with Macbeth’s death and Malcolm’s ascension to the throne. But it makes clear that these events did not tie up Scotland’s political problems as neatly as the Bard implied. Even more intriguingly, Greig has Lady Macbeth live on as an embodiment of a Celtic culture the English can never suppress. Roxana Silbert’s RSC production strains too hard, however, to emphasize the epic qualities of this multilayered text.
The four sections of the play, representing the seasons of a single year, open with monologues by a young English soldier (Sam Swann), describing the combined excitement and hardship of his army’s campaign to the wild North.
Under the command of General Siward (Jonny Phillips) — a minor character in Shakespeare’s original but here the flawed hero — – the English army expects to easily defeat “the tyrant” (meaning Macbeth, never seen and never directly named). But complicated local politics and an underestimation of the power of Macbeth’s widow, Queen Gruach (Siobhan Redmond), make the English campaign drag on longer and expend more young lives than initially foreseen. This theme of the costs of war subtly but clearly evokes contemporary Afghanistan.
Silbert and designer Robert Innes Hopkins have brilliantly refitted the Hampstead Theater into a thrust configuration, allowing three entry points onto a sloping stage. Auds are given the thrilling sense of the action happening all around them.
Initial scenes in which more than 20 male actors in chain mail plunge onto the stage in clouds of dry ice, to Nick Powell’s pulsing live music, create a strong sense of excitement and engagement. But these highly theatrical transitions soon become wearing; a simpler mode of moving between scenes would have provided a necessary lightening of tone.
A similar feeling of heaviness and portent characterizes Phillips’ and Redmond’s performances. She, in particular, appears to be playing an idea of stylized, sexualized Celtic-ness — down to her bright red tresses, ill-fitting Druid priestess-style gown, and an accent that never quite settles in any Scottish location.
The two actors’ awkwardness, alone and together, means we’re not sufficiently drawn into a crucial seduction scene between Siward and Gruach, with damaging consequences. Because we never buy into their shared passion, it’s hard to credit or care enough about Siward’s second-act transformation from a conscience-tortured leader to a man hell-bent on tracking down the fugitive queen.
The production’s most impressive performance comes from Brian Ferguson as a deadpan Malcolm, whom Greig has gifted with two brilliant speeches that parody, in their extremity, cliches of the plain-spoken yet devious Scot.
The play does important cultural work by reminding us how many ideas of Scottishness (or any nationality) depend on the account of someone outside that culture. Greig continues to impress as a writer of enormous imagination and fearlessness; this play deserves a production that more fully embraces its complex mixture of poetry, humor and politics.