The National Theatre of Scotland
The Empire Theatre
SET in a war-ravaged country where a larger military power has imposed regime change by force, David Greig’s Dunsinane once again finds itself reflecting today’s headlines.
The focus of international concern might have moved westwards to Syria, but events in Iraq and Afghanistan were very much in Greig’s mind when he wrote the play, suggesting the 1000-year gap between 11th century Scotland and 21st century Near East is not so big after all.
Certainly some of the language in this Macbeth II is more earthy than Shakespearean, while in the early scenes a group of English soldiers charge through Macbeth’s fallen castle yelling "clear!" in the manner of a SAS squad dealing with terrorists.
A speech by Sandy Greirson’s slippery King Malcolm on the nature of false information and definitive statements can easily be read as Greig’s take on the faulty intelligence that led to Britain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq. Yet for all the top level political manipulation that goes on for control of Scotland, Greig’s play is also careful to take a squaddies’ eye view of the conflict, mainly articulated through the narration of a young soldier well played by Tom Gill.
For them the political goals are not as much of a concern as finding women, facing a hostile climate and population and just surviving, even after their supposed decisive victory in toppling "the tyrant" Macbeth.
For plain-speaking soldier Siward (Jonny Phillips), it should be simple: "We’ll set a new king on the throne. By next spring it’ll be as if there never was a fight here."
Of course it is more complicated than that. Scotland is a hostile, cold land of shifting and complicated alliances, where the locals, as personified by Siobhan Redmond’s crafty and manipulative Queen Gruach, refuse to admit defeat.
Greig’s Scotland, a place of mountain, bog and a climate that is more winter than summer, is hardly the image that VisitScotland would want to project and the image of an eternal antagonism between the Scots and their southern neighbours painted in Gruach’s final threat to Siward may also have an uncomfortable resonance as the independence referendum looms closer.
Yet there is also a sense that he is out to reclaim the story of Macbeth and his wife from Shakespeare’s damning portrait.
Unfortunately for Redmond, her wavering Highland accent with its curious singsong delivery is a distraction from what should be a commanding performance, though Phillips is in good form as his initial good intentions give way to a ruthless scorched earth policy and what amounts to a breakdown as he fails to stem the flow of violence.
Greig’s script is clever, balancing the darkness and weighty issues with wit and touches of comedy. There even seems to be something of a nod to Monty Python and The Holy Grail in some of the early scenes, but at other times this epic play can feel like heavy going.
Not a total triumph, perhaps, but Dunsinane’s ambition and provocative intelligence do deserve recognition — even if the jury remains out on whether we need a sequel to Macbeth.