‘Fear not, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane’ quotes Shakespeare’s Macbeth, recounting the prophecy that foretells of his demise. And it is to this point in the play that David Greig’s sequel, Dunsinane, returns to begin its journey into new territory, as we watch the English soldiers march towards the castle while comically holding branches in front of their youthful faces.
After successfully capturing and killing Macbeth, the English soldiers occupy Scotland and set about restoring peace. The problem is, a peaceful country needs a strong leader with strong support and it is unclear with whom the majority of support lies. The focus of the play rests in the relationship between Gruach, Macbeth’s queen who here survives him, and the leader of the occupying army, Siward, Earl of Northumbria. The unrest that ensues is the unintentional consequence of well-intentioned - but nevertheless deliberate - brutal actions.
Siward is repeatedly referred to as a good man: his war is fought in the pursuit of peace, not wealth; he is in Scotland to bring order; he wants what is best for Scotland and will let the clan chiefs decide, in a democratic parliament, who they want to be king. Unfortunately, as the wily and corrupt temporary stand-in King Malcolm points out, he does not understand anything about the existing politics in Scotland, which is a complex pattern of loyalties and allegiances, a tangled network of obligations and carefully balanced feuds.
As Gruach outmanoeuvres and outsmarts him at every turn, Siward continues to apply his blunt and brutal tactics of war, trying to force peace through obliterating all who have other ideas about how a peaceful solution may be reached. Everyone loses in the end and as Gruach wisely asserts, ‘there would have been much less blood if you weren’t a good man’.
While the themes of the play are serious and have obvious resonances with the English occupation of various parts of the Middle East, Greig’s brilliance lies in his wit. He presents Scotland and Scottish culture as something alien and foreign, with jokes about the weather, the landscape and the language shedding an uncomfortable light on the ways in which other cultures and customs gain their reputation as uncivilised, primitive and strange. That these sorts of rhetoric then provide a cover story under which atrocities are permitted in the name of peace or civilisation, is left hanging uncomfortably amid the laughter.
The sparse set of cold, stone steps topped by a Celtic cross, combined with some clever lighting and unfussy, authentic costumes, lent an eerie beauty and a simple clarity to the sense of time and place. There were some fine performances: Siobhan Redmond was an elegant, gently fearless and knowing Gruach and Jonny Philips’ brusque, rugged and increasingly ragged Siward provided an appropriate foil (although many of us in the audience were having difficulty understanding his muffled diction at times).
This is a sequel that takes a markedly different perspective of the characters and the country from the original and is all the more interesting for it. More of a tragicomedy than a tragedy; there is more sane brutality than bloody madness; and it is more likely to be dubbed The English Play, while being more truly Scots than The Scottish Play ever was. A great achievement.
Show runs 1 – 5 October