Malcolm has returned from England in force, Scotland has fallen, and the invading army, breastplates emblazoned with the white and red cross of St George, occupies Dunsinane castle. The deposed tyrant lies in his winding sheet. But what really happens after the dictator falls? Must the great men of history simply be knocked off their horses to restore order, reason and peace?
Taking the conclusion of The Scottish Play as his starting point, Dunsinane is David Greig’s rejoinder to the questions raised by Shakespeare’s archetypally tragic denouement. In Greig’s version, the dethroned Macbeth leaves behind him not only a living wife and heir, but a riven Scotland whose politics are a Gordian knot of family affinities and feuds. His icily composed queen, Gruach, played here by Siobhan Redmond, remains determined to keep her crown.
Set against her are Sandy Grierson’s excellent Malcolm, a perjink, calculating figure, and his English allies. Their commander, Siward Earl of Northumberland, is determined to enforce the new peace at any price, though this will be higher than he could possibly predict.
A hard, taut, honourable man, Siward’s straightforward nature ill-equips him for the shifting terrain of Dunsinane‘s 11th century Scottish politics, where appearance and reality are not so readily distinguished. The superb Jonny Phillips brings an imposing martial energy to his spare, sinewy Siward, and real emotion to his character’s struggle with a strange country about which, he slowly realises, he knows nothing.
The play speaks primarily in the voices of the occupiers rather than the occupied; not just in the conversation of high policy in palaces, but in the worldly banter of young English soldiers, and through letters sent home by a Boy Soldier (played by Tom Gill). Greig’s Scotland is a howling heath, and the playwright brings some lovely poetry to bear in his descriptions of a contrary land where Siward’s conclusive and often humane English axioms go to die. Redmond’s Gruach is a statuesque, inscrutable figure, almost an elemental force. She lends the play an almost otherworldly quality that is enhanced by Nick Powell’s score, and the singular, diaphanous beauty of the play’s Gaelic song.
Unlike the commercially motivated Egham (ably played by Alex Mann) Siward is no English asset-stripper: his tragedy is not one of malice, but of misapplied benevolence and lack of understanding. His good intentions lead him astray. It is a disturbing, cautionary message, and of strong contemporary relevance given that our airwaves still crackle with euphemisms about the necessity of “action being taken” in the Middle East.
As this version of Dunsinane opened in Inverness, the House of Commons debated taking military action in Syria, and it is impossible to watch this drama of occupation without perceiving the long shadows cast over it by the Iraq war. That being said, the production does well to ensure these contemporary parallels, although urgent and inevitably at the forefront of our minds, do not overwhelm the drama.
Those expecting a dark drama or an earnest history play in Dunsinane will find that it takes an unexpectedly comic turn. From the knockabout Inbetweeners-esque larks of the English soldiers, to the assumed languor and bone-dry wit of Grierson’s Malcolm, Greig gives his actors a droll script with which to work. However, achieving an effective balance between the play’s comic and tragic elements is an ambitious and tricky dramatic task, and this production did not fully manage to pull it off. While some leavening wit is welcome, more than once the humour dissipated hard-won, tragic moments. One scene in particular, which ought to have been pitiful and rending, was given away, far too cheaply, for a cackle. Much better is the final act, which provides a conclusion with a more appropriate sense of emotional gravitas.
Though not an unqualified success, the force of Phillips’ central performance, his impressive actorly chemistry with Redmond, and the ambition of Greig’s material, give this entertaining production real strength.