National Theatre of Scotland and The Royal Shakespeare Company
Kwai Tsing Theatre
Reviewed: May 2
Billing David Greig's Dunsinane as a sequel to Shakespeare's Macbeth is misleading - while it follows on from the same historical events it bears no relation to the original.
Instead, Greig uses the 11th century setting to explore a contemporary theme - a peacekeeping force in a land far from home where its presence is unwelcome. The result is entertaining and thought-provoking, if flawed.
The play opens with Macbeth's defeat by an English army which has invaded Scotland to put Malcolm, whose father, King Duncan, was murdered by Macbeth, on the throne.
The army's commander, Siward, is an honourable soldier who believes in his mission to bring order to the chaos which reigns among the warring clans.
Treating the conquered with mercy, he spares the life of Macbeth's widow, Gruach, despite warnings that it would be safer to have her killed.
It soon becomes clear that bringing peace won't be a simple process, and the planned brief incursion turns into a long-term occupation.
The wily Gruach seduces Siward and tries to persuade him to take the kingship for himself. When he refuses she escapes to lead a guerilla campaign to make her son Luluch king.
Increasingly disillusioned as more of his soldiers die and the Scots stubbornly resist his efforts to help them, Siward resorts to more brutal methods, culminating in the slaughter of Gruach's son whose body he brings to her in a final attempt to end the fighting.
Implacable even in her grief, she tells him that the conflict will go on and that the Scots will always defy the English.
The obvious parallels with peacekeeping missions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are underlined by the contemporary dialogue, even if the uniforms are chainmail instead of khaki.
Greig does an excellent job of showing that the rational, well-meaning occupiers are strangers in a strange land who have no understanding of the people they're dealing with and no hope of achieving their purpose in being there. However, by the end of the first half we've already got the message and the second half fails to develop it further.
There is some fine writing, notably in the descriptions of Scotland and the contrast between the mentality of the two sides, but Greig should have opted for a more realistic approach rather than treating much of the play as a black comedy.
The scenes with the English soldiers are full of knock-about humour and the violence has a comic-strip flavour. Unfortunately, the switches to more serious moments, notably the exchanges between Siward and Gruach, don't always come off, making the play's tone uneven and diminishing its impact.
Roxana Silbert's direction is brisk and well paced and the acting is excellent. Siobhan Redmond's Gruach (pictured) dominates the stage, although the character is too much on one note. Greig has jettisoned the complexity of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth (not to mention resurrecting her) in favour of a Boadicea-like figure whose only moment of weakness comes when she is faced with the body of her son.
Darrell D'Silva's Siward progresses vividly from self-assurance through bewilderment, to anger and despair. Among the supporting cast, Tom Gill's endearing Boy Soldier and Ewan Donald's calculating Malcolm stand out.