"You seem to think peace is a natural state but the truth is the exact opposite. Peace is what the sea looks like in a dead calm – a rare and beautiful moment."
David Greig’s new play for the RSC is vivid in its use of language and wide in scope. Set in eleventh century Scotland, it is a sequel of sorts, picking up where Macbeth left off. Birnam Wood has advanced on Dunsinane (following some drama studenty tree-empathy exercises on the part of the soldiers) and Macbeth, ‘the tyrant’, is dead. His wife, however, despite rumours to the contrary, is very much alive as, more problematically, is her son.
Siward, Earl of Northumberland and leader of the English army, his son slain by Macbeth in battle, must deal with the aftermath. There’s strife between the various clans and a refusal to accept the authority of Malcolm, the newly crowned king. It soon dawns on the English soldiers that their battle is far from over and that they won’t see their homes again, not before winter; they are stuck in this hostile country, with its equally hostile weather, for the duration.
Held captive in her own castle, Lady Macbeth, known as Gruach, bides her time, convinced of her right to rule, still queen in mind and heart. Greig uses the observations of a young boy soldier to sculpt his narrative and to create a nice juxtaposition with the more heated scenes between Siward and Gruach. As the widowed queen Siobhan Redmond, her red hair tumbling across her shoulders, a flash of fire amidst the murky medieval greys and browns, comports herself with dignity and a regal distance. She speaks with a grudging grace, forced to converse in another tongue, a language she describes as a “woodworker’s tool”, a language that lacks the poetry of Gaelic in its desperate attempts to “capture the world in words”
Yet despite Redmond’s considerable poise, her attempts at seduction of Jonny Phillips’ battle-hardened Siward don’t feel particularly convincing and Roxana Silbert’s production rather fudges her semi-mystical escape, gliding to freedom amidst crowds of clashing soldiers. The more fascinating character is Brian Ferguson’s Malcolm, a man who knows and understands his own weaknesses, who uses them as a shield. He is also adept at balancing and weighing out his words, in the judicious use of ‘seems’ and ‘appears’, spinning the situation to his advantage.
Greig’s play of invasion and insurgence has obvious modern parallels but only occasionally does it hammer them home with excessive force. He contrasts the antics of the young soldiers – ripe with talk of tits and sex, missing their homes, baffled by this foreign land with its alien foods and customs – with the machinations of those in power and relies on slender red threads to link their world with the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Silbert’s production moves smoothly and elegantly from the broad, almost Monty Python and the Holy Grail-esque atmosphere of the opening scenes to the stark, snow-swept landscape of its low-key denouement.
Designer Robert Innes Hopkins has created a simple, stepped stone set which, while effective, also sometimes feels cramped (especially during a central wedding scene). Though the production is a decent one, it can feel a bit pedestrian in places and one is left with the impression that Greig’s play is a much richer thing than it is fully allowed to be here.
Reviewed for musicOMH