The Scottish Play (Part 2!)
While I am on a blogging roll and it is all new and exciting, I thought I’d post something new ASAP. However, this isn’t strictly speaking New With Tags or even NWOT (I’ve been spending a lot of time on eBay recently). Instead this is a review I wrote last Summer after seeing David Greig’s play, Dunsinane, in Stratford upon Avon. It was as fabby a piece of theatre as I saw all year, and as such prompted me to organise my wildly excited thoughts on paper the following day. Sadly for you lot, due to it being so new, and having a couple of runs that are now closed, it will mean very little to anyone who is likely to read this. I only know two people who saw the play – one (my little bruv) has already read this and two (my fella) has chosen not to, for fear of unknown big words. So, despite the fact that this won’t mean much, I offer my Second Post. Ta-da! (Please take a moment to hear the blaring mental fanfare that accompanies this.)
P.S If this bores you rigid, never fear! I have no more year-old pesky theatre reviews up my sleeve. It’s still all a bit of a test.
Five weeks ago I watched a production of Macbeth (a play I know very little about) at the Liverpool Everyman. An accomplished and solid cast led by David Morrissey took me on a journey through the aggression and the madness that lies at the heart of this Scottish tale. It was an excellent performance from all concerned. Being Macbeth however, it was also what can only be described as ‘a bit bleak’. As someone who knows a bit about Shakespeare, I quickly recognised that this play was not going to leave me with the same feel-good factor that Much Ado might manage as I left the theatre. It was also something I would not need to watch again for quite some time. I had risen to the challenge of watching it, been moved by it, and I certainly felt proud that I had participated in the final play being performed at the Everyman before its refurbishment. But if I was to be truly honest with myself, Macbeth as it goes, is not a play I particularly enjoy.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and I am met with a question from my actor brother. ‘Do you want to see the sequel to Macbeth next week?’
Hmmm…how to respond… ‘No?’ springs to mind.
It transpired that a friend of said brother was in the cast of Dunsinane, the 2010 play set in 11th century Scotland, telling the tale of ‘what happens next’ as Macbeth is removed from power. The brother made a compelling argument flattering my snobbish and cultured ego.
‘You’ll like it. It’s like Macbeth.’
Hmmm. Perhaps it has not paid to be so guarded about my feelings regarding Shakespeare’s less humourous, less loved-up and less fuzzy stories. Because let’s not mince words, Macbeth is not humorous, loved up or fuzzy.
So, partly in order to maintain my ‘English Lit. Superstar’ credentials, and partly because I always like a good road trip, I agreed to drive to Stratford, with the brother to watch the penultimate Saturday performance of David Grieg’s ‘Dunsinane’ at the newly-polished Swan Theatre.
Arriving in town at 4pm, we had a lovely afternoon in the sun. A gentle stroll from the car park to Chapel Street, a late lunch in Café Rouge with a dashing bar guy and a browse in the impressive RST gift shop were all highly satisfying activities, so as we waited for the theatre to open at 7pm, I felt content that despite the gruelling evening to follow, I had enjoyed the events leading up to it, if nothing else.
Once inside and seated, I opened my programme (cunningly doubling up as a copy of the text) and read the opening scenes to myself. This is when the first realisation struck me.
This is not in Shakespearian language!
Whilst this did not provide as an excessive relief as it might for some people, it did make me wonder if this might be a different kind of evening to the one I had been envisaging. Minutes later a second thought occurred to me as I scanned the opening lines.
Was that … a joke?
A brief comment on the wildness of Fife compared to the civility of Kent stood out as being slightly flippant and amusing, or at least it did to my mind, but I had no time to ponder this as the lights dimmed and the play began.
To say my expectations were wildly inaccurate is like describing Hamlet as ‘a bit moody’. From the opening scene, the audience guffawed - proper belly laughing, not just your usual ‘Shakespeare humour’ titters from the bearded elderly. The comedy was rife in most scenes involving the raggle-taggle band of English youths excellently mirroring a British stag do in Palma, or a bunch of football fans on the piss after some European championship match. The Scottish King Malcolm (Brian Ferguson) had some of the best lines – or rather interpreted best some of the lines, with timing to rival fellow Scot, Billy Connelly. And there was more than a hint of the Basil Fawltys as Egham’s sword lashed about wildly, screaming ’Which one of you is the fucking King?’ It could so easily have been a tree branch and a 1970s’ car.
Yet juxtaposed with this beautifully timed comedy, were moments of intense drama. The beguiling Gruach (Siobhan Redmond) didn’t get many of the funny bits (one could make the criticism that the play suggests the only role of women is to be that of the mad angry bitch or the scheming temptress) but she was the lynch pin in the relationships of all characters that surrounded her. Malcolm feared her actual power, the young soldiers were terrified of her suspected powers and Siward (Jonny Phillips) respected her place in the court enough to be blinded to the truth. One of the more satisfying aspects of this drama is that at only momentary periods, do you remember that this is Lady Macbeth. All the evils and hardships of the country can be attributed to her lust for power, and yet to the credit of the script and the players, most of the time this is forgotten. Grieg’s Gruach invokes more pity than Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth can ever do, yet it is worth remembering that this is supposed to be the same character. She is a multiple murderess long before we meet her here.
As is oft the case when watching a really good play (or perhaps just because there was a coachload of students in the auditorium) I found myself imagining the kinds of set-text questions that A-Level exam boards would have conceived. There was the key motif of ‘doing the right thing’- everyone thinking that their actions are the ‘right thing to do’ and yet bloodshed and destruction being all there is to show for it. Another key theme was that of language - from its power to its idiosyncrasies. Grieg allows time amidst the action, to explore the relevance of words – from Malcolm explaining how in Scotland ‘we tend to hear that word ‘seems’, to Gruach with dark sexuality, comparing English to being ‘a woodcutter’s language’ and wholly descriptive. ‘Our language’ she concludes ‘is the forest.’ Greig’s soldiers are excellent in their employment of so called low language, and after the sensual conclusion of the linguistic seduction between Gruach and Siward, we are brought right back to earthy reality, with the bragging declaration of a young soldier.
“I’m going to hit that woman right in the tit.’
There is also the uneasy and unsettling notion of what the linguistic humour masks. Whilst the boy-soldiers make jokes about getting laid and ‘touching the hen girl’s tit’ to laughs a-plenty, the grim truth is that they are casually discussing the rape and molestation of the people whose country they have invaded. It was much later when the Iraq and Afghanistan parallels dawned on me, but much of the underlying commentary is based on invasion, overthrowing power, seeming power that is false in reality and the struggle to marry (literally at one point) wildly differing ideals in order for a nation to exist cohesively. It is no surprise that the healing never takes place and the final implication is that it never will.
Twenty-four hours later, and I still feel like there is so much more to this play than I have discovered yet. A Google search for accompanying notes has proved fruitless (it has only been published for a year I suppose) but this means my hunger for commentary is not satiated. It was theatre at its best, playwriting at its most creative and social commentary at its most honest. Can it be wanting of anything else? Just a couple more funnies for Gruach perhaps?