The Theatreguide.London Review
Hampstead Theatre February-March 2010
More intellectual stimulation than light entertainment, David Greig's new play for the Royal Shakespeare Company is a thought-provoking gloss on Shakespeare, realpolitik and current events.
A sequel and alternative reading to Macbeth, this play begins with Shakespeare's fifth act, as Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane and the English general Siward leads an invading army that defeats the tyrant (never named, perhaps in deference to theatrical superstition) and places Malcolm on the Scottish throne.
But reports of Lady M's sleepwalking, madness and death have been greatly exaggerated in this version, and the Queen, here called by her historical name of Gruach, is very much alive and eager to lead a guerrilla rebellion against the new king.
So what the English general thought would be a simple matter of removing a tyrant, planting a new government and establishing peace now becomes a lengthy occupation of an inhospitable terrain, marked by constant skirmishes that lead him to increasingly vicious responses.
Sound familiar? Any resemblance to the British experience in Iraq and Afghanistan is purely intentional, though never forced, just allowing exchanges like 'It's in England's interest to have peace in Scotland' -'We had peace, until you came along.' to resonate tellingly.
What Siward discovers is a Scotland built on essentially independent fiefdoms connected by clan associations, ancient rivalries, and ever-shifting alliances-of-convenience, so that Malcolm can explain that his personal effeteness and political weakness actually make him a good choice for king, since he poses no threat to the thanes, while someone more to Siward's liking might encourage rebellion.
But this is too subtle for Siward's military mind, that can only grasp the idea that you create peace by killing off or neutralising the elements threatening war (again, sound familiar?).
And so the Shakespeareans among us get an enjoyable lesson in how his play oversimplified the story, and those with strong opinions about current British military adventures are reminded that no government ever learns anything from history.
All this really is intellectually fascinating, and the nearly-three-hours of the play do move by quickly.
Where the play stumbles a bit is in dressing this literary and political analysis in human clothing, as you keep feeling that Siward, Gruach, Malcolm and some of the others ought to be more rounded and humanly involving characters than they are, and that you ought to be caring more and thinking less.
As directed by Roxana Silbert, Jonny Phillips is most successful as Siward, creating an almost tragic figure out of the well-intentioned man increasingly out of his depth but not knowing what else to do but continue pushing forward.
One senses that Gruach is meant to have more sexual energy than Siobhan Redmond gives her, the actress playing the Queen's cold determination more effectively than her Cleopatra-like allure.
Brian Ferguson quietly lets us see that there is more to Malcolm than the pliant client the English think they're planting, and Sam Swann is sympathetic as the English soldier through whose eyes much of this is seen.
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