Everyone knows what happens immediately after Macbeth’s challenge in the penultimate scene of Shakespeare’s Macbeth–Macduff slays Macbeth, making Malcolm King of Scotland. But what happens after that?
Playwright David Grieg has imagined a scenario in his splendidly written play Dunsinane, which is being toured by the National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and has been brought to Chapel Hill by Carolina Performing Arts. It will repeat Friday, January 30 in Memorial Hall. Hie ye thither for an intoxicating, 160-minute compound of brilliant thinking, poetic speaking, powerful play-making and superb acting, accompanied by bold music on stage.
Although Dunsinane is a “sequel” to Macbeth, it is so much more. For starters, it inverts the point of view. Macbeth, the play postulates, was not (just) a murderous tyrant, but a successful and stabilizing king for 15 years, during a time when Scottish kings generally fell after a year or two. Siward’s army, far from being a liberating force bringing peace, appears as an occupying force, bringing battle and destruction during a contest of wills over national identities and self-determination. And suddenly, although the scene and characters remain, we are no longer in 11th century Scotland, but in Afghanistan, Iraq and every other place where one country has forced “regime change” on another. It’s brilliant. Grieg and director Roxana Silbert don’t force the parallel, but there are Middle Eastern rhythms in the otherwise Celtic music, the women’s head coverings look very much like hijabs.
And–Lady Macbeth is not dead. Gruach lives, as Queen in her own right, with a son (by her first husband) before her and the strength of her clans behind her. Descended from the Scottish King Malcolm I, their claims to the throne appear more valid than those of the English puppet Malcolm (who turns out less biddable than his English masters expected). Gruach is marvelously portrayed by Siobhan Redmond, and her performance alone is worth the ticket price. Redmond’s presence electrifies the stage and all around her, and her diction and projection are such that she overcame entirely the acoustic deficiencies for theatre of the Memorial Hall stage in the January 29th performance.
As Siward, Darrell D’Silva gives a deeply moving performance as the commander whose good intentions mire him in confusion and tragedy. His final scene with the Queen when he has traced her through the snow to her hiding place, his pleas breaking against her implacable will, his will crumbling before her certainty–it’s devastatingly beautiful, 20 minutes of theater that will remain etched in memory. It is Siward who’ll be damned and cry “hold, enough!”: he’d killed the Queen’s son Lulach, but not the woman bearing Lulach’s child. The struggle is not over; it will never be over. There will always be someone else. Gruach’s position holds; Siward plods out into the dark, away. “We walk,” he says. “we walk.”
Keith Fleming makes a fine warrior and canny diplomat as Macduff, but Ewan Donald as the slippery Malcolm has the key speech:
“You seem to think peace is a natural state, Siward, and conflict its interruption, but the truth is the exact opposite.”
Would we have fewer wars if we admitted that to ourselves?
Whether you can see this play or not, you may want to read it (Faber and Faber, 2010). Grieg’s writing is very musical and imaginative, as well as trenchant (he also wrote The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, which CPA and the National Theatre of Scotland presented in Chapel Hill in 2012). The story of Dunsinane divides into acts by season, each introduced by a soldier-narrator. For all its serious meditations on war and peace, politics and power, and the lusts that drive them, the play is also full of laughs, and astonishing descriptions. There are also some first-class program notes available here.