Lay on, Macduff, And damn’d be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!

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?

Malcolm crowned near the beginning of DUNSINANE. The National Theatre of Scotland/Royal Shakespeare Company production is at Carolina Performing Art. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Malcolm crowned near the beginning of DUNSINANE. The National Theatre of Scotland/Royal Shakespeare Company production is at Carolina Performing Art. Photo courtesy of the artists.

 

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.

 

THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART: Nothing’s Too Strange for the Devil’s Cèilidh

Alasdair Macrae (L) and David McKay in the Back Bar at Top of the HIll, 9-14-12.

Carolina Performing Arts opened its 2012/12 season with a pleasingly, teasingly, satiric cèilidh of a play, THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART, written by David Greig, and performed by five actor/musicians from the National Theatre of Scotland. The play is set in a pub, and the CPA production took place in a pub—the Back Bar at Chapel Hill’s Top of the Hill brewpub. Since the show includes a great deal of gentle mockery of the more ridiculous aspects of academia, not to mention considerable carousing and carrying on, holding it off-campus was a good idea. You could get a beer, and those walls have undoubtedly heard far more scathing remarks about professors and their ludicrous papers than the more formal precincts of Memorial Hall.  And, it was big fun.

The National Theatre of Scotland sounds like an old established institution, but in fact, if was founded in 2006—and it has no home stage. Its mission is to find and tell, and re-tell, the stories that need to be told, in the places where people need to hear them. The company, based in Glasgow, takes its shows to the people all over Scotland, and now tours internationally. They last appeared locally, at CPA, with their Iraqi war story, Black Watch. In the Triangle area, the most easily comparable company is the itinerant Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern.

But back to the cèilidh (say: kay-lee), a Gaelic social gathering with traditional music and dance. When held on the winter solstice, when at midnight a crack opens between the worlds, “a chink between the mighty walls of time,” it becomes the devil’s cèilidh, and who knows what may happen. One thinks immediately of the similar set-up in Conor McPherson’s St.Nicholas, in which the devil joins a Dublin card game late on Christmas Eve.

(L to R) Philanthropist Tom Kenan, PlayMakers artistic director Joseph Haj, and Emil Kang, director of Carolina Performing Arts, making paper snow for the blizzard.

Prudencia Hart and her colleagues at an academic conference on Scottish Border ballads, held in Kelso, in the Borders area south of Edinburgh, should have known about this tradition, but when a blizzard traps them, post-conference, in the pub, they are caught unawares and swept into the ancient way of marking the season of darkness. Prudencia, trying to flee, runs right to the devil (David McKay, wonderfully understated), who, naturally, is a man of wealth and taste.

While this, despite its sympathy for the devil, is not the most gripping of plays emotionally, it is a delight in its use of language and rhyme, which follows the Border ballad style, and for the fantastic music. If you are from North Carolina, you will recognize in the players the gene pool that sent so many Borderers—Scots and English—into the Piedmont and especially, the mountains of Carolina, where the old songs were well-preserved (for more on this in semi-fiction, see, for instance, the film Songcatcher). And, you will recognize the music, even if you don’t know these songs. Composer and musical director Alasdair Macrae, in particular, looks like he just came down from the Carolina hills.

Annie Grace and Alasdair Macrae led the music.

He (playing a staggering number of instruments, including the harmonium), and powerful singer Annie Grace (who plays the lowland pipes, and a pretty mean bodhran) are the primary musicians, but the other actors are good enough to keep up. One amusing aspect was seeing and hearing how musical influence flows many ways. Scottish traditions appear not only in Appalachia, but further west in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas and Missouri, and on its journey across America, Scottish music got familiar with the banjo (here’s Jimmie Driftwood putting the Arkansas twang on the old ballad, “Lord Randall”)—and there was actor/musician Andy Clark playing an Ozark-brand banjo in the play’s ballads old and new.

Andy Clark on Ozark banjo

Poor Prudencia Hart (Melody Grove) needs shaking up—she is, as musician/actor Macrae intones, “intent on capturing a transcendent moment and setting it in stone.” Or as her nemesis, the uber-cool prof Colin Syme (Andy Clark) puts it to her face, she’s “just a librarian.” Perhaps a season in hell is a bit much, for unlike Syme, she truly loves the beauty and poetry of the ballads, and the whole show explicates their qualities directly.

Melody Grove as Prudencia Hart

The rhyming is marvelous; here are a few examples:

Elektra/protect her

Buoyed/annoyed

Coat/gloat

Pint of bitter/checking Twitter

And when Prudencia steps fatefully out into the storm in search of a B&B, she moves from “a room of sex, drink and violence/to a world of utter silence.”

After a very, very long time among all the books that ever were in the devil’s library, Prudencia finds the way to “fuck the devil and steal the key,” and slip back through the crack between the worlds. Back in her old life, she’ll be able to speak with unprecedented authority on what had previously been a glib presentation phrase: “hell’s place in the collective psyche.” Like the play’s producers, I’m of the opinion that the best place for that topic is one offering music, poetry and plenty of libations.

The show closes in Chapel Hill tonight (sold-out), but the tour continues. See company website for schedules in DC, Chicago and around the country.

At the cèilidh

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