by David Grieg
Directed by Roxanna Silbery
National Theatre of Scotland / Royal Shakespeare Company
Bath Theatre Royal
9th October 2013, matinee
This is the third tour of the same production in three years, with the same lead actors, which indicates that it’s both good, and popular.
Sequels. This is a sequel to Macbeth. Elsewhere on this blog, I’ve described the Spam I eliminate on a daily basis. These poor bastards toiling away in Central Asia have spamming scripts, and an oft-repeated one was “Great write! Will it be a Part Two? When?” which can be applied to any film review. I found this especially amusing applied to a Hamlet review. A Part Two? What would it be? “Fortinbras- my First Decade as King” perhaps? Everyone else is dead.
The premise of David Grieg’s Dunsinane is that Lady Macbeth, or Gruach (her historical first name) survived and that her reported death in Macbeth was one of those curtain call springings to life (Not dead! But only sleeping!) or one of those super villain escapes between Part One and Part Two of a Marvel movie.
So we’re into Macbeth II – Lady Macbeth Rules OK? And it’s a superb play. Grieg has set the English army under Seward, Earl of Northumbria, conquering King Macbeth, and placing Malcolm as a puppet on the throne. They then want to leave, but find themselves ever more embroiled in the clan conflicts of Scotland.
MacxDuff and Seward. Macduff explains the web of allegiances and feuds
It’s not “about” 11th century Scotland at all. it’s about Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria now, for which 11th century Scotland stands in. The complex clan allegiances are explained by MacDuff. They are the same as the tribal allegiances in the Middle East. It isn’t simply a case of killing the tyrant Macbeth, sticking his head on a pike, and all is sunshine and light. The old clan allegiances still exist, many of them directly to Gruatch, the Queen. She tells Seward that Macbeth was a good king, bringing peace for fifteen years (just as Tito, Gadaffi, Saddam and Assad suppressed tribal differences). Seward is shocked, pointing out that Macbeth had killed her first husband. ‘Because I asked him to,’ is the reply.
Seward, the central character and commander of the English peacekeeping force., finds himself stuck, unable to end the mission among the warring clans and go home. As one soldier says, ‘But why are they fighting us?” and the answer is “They’re fighting us because we’re stopping them fighting each other.” Welcome to the North-West Frontier. Malcolm, the puppet king of Scotland installed by the English, is a dead ringer for President Hamid Kharzai of Afganistan, the man who we can’t discuss without recalling that in Carry On Up The Kyber the Pathan leader was known as the Khazi. He’s a dissembler, fond of word play, a brutal smoothie.
It is a brilliant play. The English soldiers are squaddies in St. George tabards, and are always funny. They start off being assigned the roles of trees or undergrowth as Burnham Wood marches on Macbeth’s fortress of Dunsinane.
The soldiers rehearse being “Burnham Wood”
“Scottish F*cking Bastard!” they yell as they kick a dead Scottish terrorist, sorry, patriot. Jonny Phillips reprises his role as Seward, Earl of Northumberland, the English commander. Seward is perplexed by his role as peacekeeper. Siobhan Redmond is on her third go at Gruach, aka Lady Macbeth, aka the Queen of Scotland. Alex Mann plays Lord Egham (from Egham in Surrey) the corrupt English captain. Lady Macbeth is magnetic and seduces the upright Seward. She’s also constantly plotting, and the English forces face attrition from attacks by archers, the 11th century car bombs on the road. The hen-girl (much fancied) kills one then kills herself with a knife. Suicide bomber. We see them picked off one by one. She flees at the end of Act One, becoming a Bin Laden figure in the hills and glens who the English forces must seek out. As they do, they become brutalized by their contacts with the ordinary people, and begin to react equally brutally to prisoners.
Lady Macbeth and Earl Seward
The Scottish landscape is as inhospitable as the mountains of Afghanistan, and they milk every joke about the dourness, coldness and inhospitality of Scotland, and the food (except deep fried Mars Bars). There are a lot of jokes about Scotland.
The Shakespearian sequel theme comes to a head in the last twenty minutes when Seward, the English leader, is seeking the witchy woman Gruatch. He dresses as a monk and takes to the wild moors bearing the bloody head of her teenage son (by her first husband) in a sack. Seward is accompanied by just one soldier, “The boy soldier” (Tom Gill) who acts as link and narrator. The King Lear / Timon of Athens parallels have been written in. Snow falls continually through the last fifteen minutes of the play, as Seward confronts Gruatch, unaware that her baby son, the future King, is their son. Actually, that isn’t stated but we all know.
Seward and Gruatch in the snow
During the interval, I listened to the people behind me tutting pedantically that in 1057, the English did not wear the St George’s cross on tabards, as the first crusade did not take place until 1099. Ah, I thought. It actually started in 1096. What pedants! Don’t out-pedant me! Does it matter? This is all fiction, as was Shakespeare. BUT then I found myself pedantically worrying about Siobhan Redmond’s accent, which was unfamiliar to me. She was supposed to be speaking English as a foreign language, and Seward was supposed to be having issues with Gaelic. Is it an actual accent of Gaelic speakers, I wondered. Then I got caught up in pedantry … hang on, the Border was fluid. Northumbria (Seward’s earldom). South-East Scotland … both Pictish territories. Both probably spoke something closer to Lallans (Lowland Scots). What’s with all this Gaelic-English translation? Surely Northumbria and South-East Scotland spoke much the same language? This is all irrelevant. Accept the premise that they speak different languages. Live with it. It’s necessaryfor the parallels they’re drawing.