The question of the year for theatre wonks has been answered: Does the sequel hold up to the original? We’ve waited a long time for this particular answer — for more than four hundred years. That’s even longer than anyone’s waited for the follow-up from Harper Lee. With the opening on Tuesday night of the Washington premiere of Dunsinane, David Greig’s sequel to William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, presented at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall in a co-production of The National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Shakespeare Company, the question now has an answer.
However, and to cite the oft-quoted Bard of Avon, “comparisons are odorous.” Isn’t it an impossible bar to meet, matching the achievement of one of the most widely known and often produced works by the best regarded and most influential theatre writer in history, a play that is a staple of English classes and that you will likely hear quoted in some context at least once in any given week?
If Greig hasn’t written a play destined for syllabi or Bartlett’s, his achievement is nonetheless immensely impressive. Greig is a playwright much better known in Britain than here (his plays are always among the most anticipated at the Edinburgh Festival) and he has written a historical play that has a wealth of resonance to contemporary events. Sound like anyone you know?
Whereas Shakespeare used history to observe aspects of Tudor/Stuart England that could have been mortally dangerous to address directly, Greig finds in his contemplation of eleventh century Scotland, and released from the particulars of and controversies about recent excursions by the West into Central Asia and the Middle East, a way to illuminate those contemporary situations in a compelling and thoughtful way. Dunsinane is more profoundly relevant to our involvement in those parts of the world than any film or play directly about them that I can recall. I loved it.
We are called into the theatre from the lobby by bagpipes, but the play begins with amplified rock chords from a three-piece band on stage. The musical underscoring throughout provides a bridge between our world and the ostensible period piece we are watching. (The guitarist is named Andy Taylor. Not the Andy Taylor who played guitar for Duran Duran and The Power Station, surely!)
The play begins with a direct address from an English soldier, a member of the foreign army that has aligned with Malcolm to defeat Macbeth, that exemplar of despotism, a character based on an eleventh century historical figure. Malcolm, you will remember, is the son of the previous King murdered by Macbeth and his famously ambitious wife. Immediately, this young soldier articulates the theme of how difficult it is for outsiders to understand a country they’ve invaded, twice using the phrase “knowing and not knowing” as regards this army’s involvement in a foreign land. Fife, he says, “is a wild place compared to Kent.”
The first formal scene in the play is a hilarious one in which the English forces are trained in the ways of convincingly enacting a forest, and it sets the tone. In a manner that doesn’t undercut the seriousness of the situations, there is a playfulness toward familiar aspects of Shakespeare’s play.
We soon meet the English commander, Siward, a character (along with his son) in Shakespeare, the protagonist in Greig. As in Shakespeare, but in a different manner, his son is killed in the battle to unseat Macbeth. MacDuff, another name familiar from Shakespeare, breaks the news to Siward and stresses the precarious nature of and randomness inherent in any incursion of this sort: “It must have been a lucky shot.”
Siward (frequently pronounced in productions of Macbeth the way we pronounce Lincoln’s Secretary of State, it is here pronounced “sea-ward”) makes clear his mandate: to bring order. Immediately, during a scene with Malcolm where he tries to understand the divided alliances that will prove an obstacle to his goal, it becomes clear that the country is as alien to him as its frigid climate and barren landscape.
It turns out, for instance, that Malcolm was “mistaken” in reporting Lady Macbeth’s death, and the widow Queen (Greig uses her historical name Gruach) will be around as antagonist to Siward tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Her attendants sing a song in the indigenous language that the English don’t know; the Sergeant remarks on its beauty. He’s told that it is a curse. (Toward play’s end, Gruach points out that Siward has been in Scotland for a year and still doesn’t know the language. Remind you of anything?)
By the time Siward is saying things like “If we don’t win, we lose,” the malleability and elusiveness of coherent goals has become lost in the archetypal quagmire situation, and oxymoronic concepts such as “fighting for peace” echo hollowly. The soldier who introduced us to the play is present throughout. He is the everyman with whom we most identify. We watch his state of mind deteriorate and speculate that, were he to be examined today, he would likely be diagnosed with PTSD.
The echoes of Iraq and Afghanistan are apparent in lines such as “If I were you, I would not be here.” (A response to Siward’s asking, “What would you do if you were me?”) Siward naively thinks it will be an easy thing to bring together the Scottish factions into a coalition government and to secure the border. (That would be in “England’s interest,” he makes clear, in order to justify this agenda of Scottish reconstruction.) It’s not long before he tasks a Lieutenant: “Tell the men we’ll be here longer than expected.” Gruach extols her dead husband’s accomplishments in a manner that brings to mind Saddam Hussein: before Macbeth, a king was killed yearly. Although a despot, Macbeth kept the throne, and stability, for fifteen years.
There was a particularly grisly resonance to today when the burning alive of villagers was described on the day we learned of the horrific fate of the Jordanian pilot. Laurie Anderson’s song “Dark Time in the Revolution” sprang to mind:
And you thought there were things that had disappeared forever
Things from the Middle Ages
Beheadings and hangings
And people in cages
And suddenly they were everywhere
And suddenly they’re alright
Welcome to, welcome to, welcome to the American night.
But the play also brings to mind other historical analogies. As characters in Dunsinane talk about the advantages of killing the widow Queen to quell a potential rebellion supporting her, you could think that you had drifted off and woken up in a scene from Mary Stuart across town at the Folger. Siward’s desperate clinging to the belief that, if he finds the right carrot, he can put down his stick and achieve “settlement” reminded me of White House tapes on which LBJ talks about buying off Ho Chi Minh by building him a dam. It’s a story often told, one where overwhelming outside power proves insufficient to quell a tenacious insurgency, to the consternation and confusion of the ostensibly powerful.
Director Roxana Silbert’s production animates engagingly all of the play’s themes and gives it a striking design. Robert Innes Hopkins’ unit set, lit by Chahine Yavroyan through an almost constant haze, suggests the barren landscape, involves totems of the time, and neatly accommodates the many settings. In a final winter scene, it snows impressively, gorgeously, and for quite a while. The program lists an Archery Consultant — many arrows are shot, and safely, which can’t have been easy.
Feb 4 – 21, 2015
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Siward isn’t a straw man, whose conflicts and delusions we can comfortably dismiss and feel superior to. His motives are as admirable as those of the many people who have tried to help other peoples, other countries. But there are few problems so bad that they cannot be made worse. “You’re a good man,” Gruach tells Siward. “It might have been better if you weren’t. There might have been less blood.”
The STC Presents program has brought a lot of wonderful international theatre to town, and this is one of the highlights. Don’t miss it.
P.S.: If you live in New York City, you are not among the stops listed for this production. Amtrak runs in both directions, you know.
Dunsinane by David Greig . Directed by Roxana Silbert . Featuring Siobhan Redmond, Darrell D’Silva, George Brockbanks, Helen Darbyshire, Ewan Donald, Keith Fleming, Tom Gill, Toyin Omari-Kinch, Arthur McBain, Matt McClure, Alex Mann and Mairi Morrison. Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins . Lighting design: Chahine Yavroyan . Composer and Sound design: Nick Powell . Movement director: Anna Morrissey . Fight director: Terry King . Archery consultant: Ruth Cooper-Brown . Musical director and cello: Rosalind Acton . Percussion: Robert Owen, Guitarist: Andy Taylor . Produced by The National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Shakespeare Company . Presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Christopher Henley.