Dunsinane, National Theatre of Scotland at the Shakespeare Theatre Company

The day that the National Theatre of Scotland's production of Dunsinane opened at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, word broke from the publishing world that a sequel to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird had not only been rediscovered, but would be published by the summer.  The longed-for sequel is on its way, and while controversy has already ignited over Lee's consent to publish the novel, its arrival seems inevitable. The initial rush of excitement soon gave way to doubt about what we'd find in a sequel.  What exactly do we gain by seeing these beloved characters again and finding out what happens next? 

Similar questions are worth asking of Dunsinane, David Greig's look into the aftermath of the events we know from William Shakespeare's Macbeth.  Greig's inspiration comes less from Shakespeare as from recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan; indeed, the play is most concerned with exploring the universal story of what arises when an invading army becomes an occupying force, wading into a morass of local complexities for which its members are ill equipped.

As a play, there are a number of different perspectives at work within Dunsinane. Interviews with Greig reveal that his own authorial intentions were primarily concerned with the political; to write about Afghanistan, he wrote about medieval Scotland.  It's a familiar approach, and one can't deny the appeal of highlighting humanity's penchant for replaying the same mistakes, regardless of the century or specifics- that's the very reason that Shakespeare's works have survived, after all.  At times, however, the universality of its goals made me wonder at the necessity for this specific story to be told- a perilous concern for a story framed as a sequel.  Macbeth is a funny old beast to use as a starting place in many ways; it's known as "the Scottish play," but written by an Englishman, and nowadays, productions will often remove the story from its historical roots altogether (Macbeth in the fascist 30s! Macbeth on the moon!!).  It seems a natural fit, then, for one of the most successful Scottish playwrights of our own day to revisit and reclaim, and yet a similar distancing remains. Peculiarly, Dunsinane may be set in Scotland, but it's the English perspective that frames our experiences, either through the narration of Tom Gill's Boy Soldier or the primary narrative of Darrell D'Silva's Siward (familiar to audiences from the final act of Macbeth). However exciting it may be to see a Lady Macbeth (Siobhan Redmond) finally given her own name- Gruach- and wielding her impressive cunning and will for her own sake, she remains an enigmatic, sometimes distant figure.

Taken as a production, Dunsinane is perhaps less innovatively designed and staged than previous visiting productions from the National Theatre (Black Watch and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart).  Roxana Silbert's direction skillfully navigates the complex relationships between Grieg's characters, even if occasionally the cast seems prey to bouts of standandtalkitis. Designer Robert Innes Hopkins's set evokes the solid stone edifaces of Dunsinane's castle walls and interiors alike, while Nick Powell's compositions and sound design bridge the centuries from Scotland to the present with Gaelic lyrics (skillfully sung by Helen Darbyshire and Mairi Morrison) backed by electric guitars. 

So what do we gain by seeing these characters again, thanks to Greig, Silbert, and the NTS? Shakespeare's play is perhaps more invested in the intensely personal human motivations at play in political coups, murders, and machinations.  Grieg opens the doors to look at the broader way political forces manipulate human action, and to challenge any easy answers to complex situations.  Gruach is more than Lady Macbeth, and Siward has more to accomplish once his battle is won.  I have great admiration for the National Theatre of Scotland, and I have yet to see a production that shakes my faith in their artistry.  The relationship between the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the NTS is an enormous gift to the city of Washington, and long may it continue.


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