Saturday, 4 June 2011

Dunsinane: Uncut

Although Dave Greig’s sequel to Macbeth imagines a Scotland occupied by an English army, and tautly deconstructs the brutality inherent in even the most honourable military morality, Dunsinane is a wryly understated argument against Scottish cultural independence. Co-produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and The National Theatre of Scotland, with a cast drawn from England and Scotland, this engaged drama by Caledonia’s most prominent playwright depends on the original by Albion’s master of the stage for its emotional impact, while Greig’s own honesty prevents him from caricaturing the English as oppressors. While it traces the roots of Border Warfare back to an mythical aetiology, the tension between the neighbouring nations is more an offshoot of Scotland’s fratricidal battles and the invaders’ lack of cultural sensitivity than any inherent conflict between two countries.

Politics is far too important to be left to politicians and media commentators: Greig’s nuanced reading of the tensions between states and individuals clearly demonstrates how theatre encourages more complex analysis. By firmly identifying with the soldiers caught up in a battle they do not understand, rescuing Lady Macbeth from Shakespeare’s slanders and giving English commander Siward a tragic depth that compels him to do evil in the service of a perceived greater good, Greig is neither sentimental about Scotland’s past, nor unwilling to draw parallels with modern global conflicts. Echoes of military adventures in the Middle East, and the revolutions in Africa draw no easy conclusions: the new broom is already tarnished and corrupt, and the defeated tyranny remains potent and popular. If there is a message, it is a plea for rounded vision.

Running at over two hours, Dusinane consists of two plays, somewhat uneasily joined: a tragicomedy of the troops, and the almost classical tragedy of Siward and Lady Macbeth. Part medieval Blackwatch and part bold rewriting of Scottish legend, some of the characterisation, especially of King Malcolm is too inconsistent, bending to the demands of the themes: and the humour often sits uneasily with the more melodramatic confrontations. The acting, although brilliant across the cast, is uneven in tone: Brian Ferguson’s decadent monarch is dryly hilarious, where Jonny Phillips pulls off Shakespearean grandeur. But while they never coalesce as an ensemble, they lend the play an uneasy tone, echoing the broader sense of political confusion. And in those moments where it works, as in a sudden shift from flirtatious banter to suicidal terrorism, it heightens the emotional impact.

Greig may not be imitating Shakespeare, but the debt he owes to Macbeth emphasises that this is a self-conscious attempt to make a major Scottish play. That it is built on an English original serves to stress the way that Scottish identity is tangled in a wider British identity: the passages of Gaelic, and the brilliant use of traditional song, combine with the English squaddies’ alienation from the Highlands to locate Scotland as not merely English with an accent, and further complicates Greig’s take on nationhood. Fierce and thoughtful, intelligent and inconclusive, Dunsinane may be Greig’s most important work to date, and he is never disappointed by either the production or the performers.

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