Dunsinane @ Hampstead Theatre

And now for something completely different.

Unlike the other plays I’ve talked about in this space, Dunsinane is a modern play that premiered near the beginning of February.  However, because I am completely monomaniacal in my interests, there is of course a Shakespeare connection: it’s billed as a sequel to Macbeth.  Which it is, sort of.

Obviously doing something like this has the potential to blow chunks of epic proportions, but I was pleasantly surprised by Dunsinane.  In fact it is… Not Bad At All.  Of the plays I’ve seen here, it’s number two — right behind that Measure for Measure production I didn’t really talk much about.  But anyway, I’m writing about Dunsinane now.  Let’s do this.

It should be noted that David Greig, a playwright of no little renown, makes a smart decision and does not choose to make Dunsinane a straight sequel to Shakespeare’s Macbeth; rather, he places his play more distinctly within historical reality.  Macbeth (who is never referred to by name and never appears on stage) is a well-regarded king who has ruled for fifteen years after seizing the throne from the weak and tyrannical Duncan; Duncan’s son, Malcolm, has meanwhile convinced the English that Macbeth rules against the wishes of the people of Scotland, and so a contingent of English soldiers led by Siward and Macduff (one of the handful of Scottish nobles to turn against Macbeth) storm the castle of Dunsinane and implement a bit of regime change.

That should sound kind of familiar, and it’s intentional.  The play mirrors the Iraq situation, with mixed results.  Much better is the way it blurs the line between actual history, Shakespeare’s play (Birnam Wood does indeed come to Dunsinane — it’s the opening scene), and Greig’s own imagination.  This mixture also allows Greig to bring Shakespeare’s most famous character, Lady Macbeth, back under her real name — Gruach.  She died for Shakespeare, she lived historically; she also had a son by her previous marriage, another detail preserved and one that invalidates Malcolm’s claim to the throne.

Malcolm, for his part, turns out to be a corrupt jackass who simply wanted the privileges of being king and not the responsibilities.  He’s also ruthless; he wants Gruach (who he’s captured) and her son (who has gone into hiding) killed to consolidate his power.  The Englishman Siward, the protagonist of the play, only wants wants stability and peace — as he calls it, justice — in the country he has invaded, and he’s willing to commit himself and the English forces indefinitely to enforcing a stable regime in Scotland.

I think it’s a great setup.  There are, in fact, a lot of really great things about this play.  It’s RSC-sponsored, so production values and set design are no problem; the actors are all generally strong, especially Gruach, who proves to be just as overwhelming a presence as a wronged mother and monarch as she does when she’s a batshit crazy regicide.  The structure of the play, though it’s four acts based on seasons, still manages to have some neat nods to Shakespeare, such as the mixture of Siward’s higher tragedy with the banter of his soldiers, vulgar young boys who discuss sex and homesickness before encountering with Heavy Stuff like death and warfare.

There’s actually a heavy dose of comedy; the opening scene of the march on Dunsinane is played mostly for laughs, underscoring how ridiculous it is to have soldiers pretending to be trees.  This is intercut with more serious scenes, as you may expect, but even Siward and Gruach have highly comedic lines.  Malcolm, for his part, is the worst; he’s played as a spineless, pseudo-Tony Blair parody, a leader who equivocates and lies but has no solid ideas for what he plans to do.  The humor written for his character is so brash and forthright, so damn modern, that it actually broke my suspension of disbelief, especially when thrown up against large, serious, questions of justice, warfare, and colonialism.

That is the play’s biggest fault: it doesn’t know what the hell it is, or wants to be.  It’s either a silly allegoric satire of the Iraq War in period dress, or it’s a serious treatment of the motivations for and effects of doing what you think is the right thing, and how far some people are willing to go for what they recognize as justice.  It’s either watching ill-equipped, unprepared young men die horribly while making sex and shit jokes, or it’s watching a committed idealist be slowly destroyed by the corrupt world around him.

All in all, the play actually has very little to do with Shakespeare’s Macbeth other than setting and a few revisionist takes on shared characters.  Thematically it’s in a different ballpark entirely.  I’ve talked before during the Psycho series about the concept (borrowed from a professor) of the “rewrite” — and in one sense Dunsinane is an attempt to rewrite Macbeth.  But that’s only skin-deep; Greig wants to call Shakespeare out on his historical inaccuracies, his limited understanding of Scottish culture, and rectify these mistakes.  But on a deeper, more profound level, Greig isn’t working with Macbeth at all.

This is clear enough in the last scene: Siward, with only a single foolish young soldier to keep him company, confronts Gruach in the midst of a bitter snowstorm.  We’ve been watching this man break down for the past two hours, we’ve seen his hopes shattered, we’ve seen him betrayed, and now we see him, hunched, obsessed, perhaps driven mad, crying out for revenge and justice in the midst of a storm.

No, Dunsinane isn’t Macbeth; it’s King Lear.

Which is interesting in and of itself, since by the time this entry is posted (remember, I’m writing a week in advance and autoupdating) I in theory will have seen the RSC’s new production of Lear running in Stratford-Upon-Avon.  And later this month, I hope to see the new RSC-sponsored play and counterpart to Dunsinane, The Gods Weep — which, when you read the plot synopsis, also happens to very obviously be a Lear rewrite.

Will something come of this?  Only time will tell!*

*Also assuming I haven’t met with some horrible accident during my week of being homeless.

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