Review: RSC’s Dunsinane

The Boy Soldier stands warily exposed and suffocated in English colours. Behind him rise steps that could be hills, gulleys, or perhaps waterfalls growing towards a Celtic cross. This omnipresent judge stares down as the soldier’s voice rings: “Knowing and not knowing what lay ahead of us. Scotland…War.”

Eleventh century Scotland. The boy’s army has successfully slaughtered the violent Macbeth and the English creep towards an unknown land, brimming with hope and vision. Yet this is Scotland. As the seasons tick by, commanding officer Siward and his men begin to realise that peace is a fickle notion in a country where “nothing is solid.”

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Playwright David Greig exploits two of Shakespeare’s creations – English general Siward and Lady Macbeth or ‘Gruach’ – through which he twists philosophy, love and manipulation. Siobhan Redmond’s fiery, concrete portrayal of Gruach sees the commander collapse under her wordplay, unable to focus the political tranquility he had so desired. Love turns to anger, and as swift as extinction, the summer fades and the chill reality of war and winter freeze over.

Greig’s genius lies in his ability to balance humour with ideological debate. Whenever discourse is loaded with unanswerable questions, Greig offers respite and wit with typical Scottish mockery. In one scene, Gruach becomes magical and goads the gullible soldiers: “Don’t you eat baby meat in England? It’s delicious.” Preventing the serious from being an unbearable weight, Greig also explores Scotland’s national identity through humour.

Aside from the sharp script, the National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Shakespeare Company must be commended for their production. The company are a strong, experienced group of actors, in which performances by Jonny Phillips (Siward) and Sandy Grierson (Malcolm) are unforgettably striking. Creatively, the uplifting Gaelic songs interspersed with the modern battle rhythms on strings perfectly fit the dynamic plot, and lead gently towards the cold, snowy conclusion.

Originally premiering in 2010, Dunsinane’s relevance was attributed to Afghanistan and Iraq. Three years later, and sad parallels remain in fresh conflicts. Visually and intellectually provoking, Greig’s work attacks moral assumption and, via wit and debate, crucially undercuts the inevitability of war in the battle for peace.

Dunsinane will visit the Theatre Royal, Glasgow from 10 September 2013 to 14 September 2013.

This article was first published in The Journal on 4 September 2013.

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