February 26

March 22, 2015

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by David Greig
directed by Roxana Silbert
from the National Theatre of Scotland
and Royal Shakespeare Company

After the Dictator Falls

by Jackie McGlone

In his essay, A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), the great parliamentarian and philosopher Edmund Burke argued that we like to go to violent plays for the same reason that people went to hangings; not because violence improves us but because it interests us, as long as it’s happening to someone else.

There is no bloodier play in the Shakespearean canon—with the exception of Titus Andronicus—than The Tragedy of Macbeth. “And yet Macbeth is a play that I would happily sit through on a weekly basis,” says David Greig, author of Dunsinane, a magnificent “sequel” to Shakespeare’s version of the life and death of the Celtic warrior-king and his “fiendlike” queen.

Greig was inspired to write Dunsinane after seeing a production of Macbeth at Dundee Rep. “I really like the play,” he confesses. “I like the narrative of it and I love seeing different actors playing it. I also admire the space it gives actors to explore these two archetypal figures, particularly Lady Macbeth.” He remembers seeing five or six productions in the UK in rapid succession, always wanting the play to carry on, longing to see part two. “I kept wondering, ‘What happens after the dictator falls?’” 

Dunsinane is Greig’s “response” to that question. “If Macbeth is about the toppling of a dictator, then we see in it a mirror of the Romanian dictator Ceausescu or Gaddafi, say, and the really interesting question is what happens next,” Greig explains, adding that he began writing as Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq crumbled. A great deal of violence was actually happening to other people, not only in Iraq but in Afghanistan. Tragically, the continuing unrest and bloodshed in the Middle East makes the timeless Dunsinane even more timely today. As Greig notes: “Civil wars are always with us.”

If Macbeth is “the Scottish play,” then Dunsinane reverses that—it’s a play about English people. It tells of an English garrison trying to survive in a hostile land, just as our “peacekeeping” forces have struggled in distant lands of late. When Greig’s play begins, Macbeth is dead. The queen has not taken her own life. She is very much alive and she certainly has not “unsexed” herself. We encounter an icily regal woman, who is cleverly playing the occupying army, led by the aristocratic Siward [Earl of Northumbria], at various complex games while carving up clan allegiances.

“And this is where, I think, events in Syria are relevant,” says Greig. “What interests me is this impulse to do good which can often end up causing as much or, indeed, more bloodshed. In Dunsinane, Siward doesn’t begin by wishing to cause harm—he believes himself to be doing the right thing. I’m actually fond of Siward, a man of action who finds himself in a confusing situation. He ends up mired in trouble and even more violence. The sad thing is, in war, one man’s downfall is the downfall of many.

“Bizarrely, when I began writing the play, which tells a story but is also a speculation, I didn’t know that this desire to do the right thing would become increasingly relevant. ‘We must do something,’ we say when we see what is happening in Syria, Iraq and many other countries. This desire to ‘do’ is both attractive and dangerous.”

Attractive and dangerous is, of course, a perfect description of Lady Macbeth, wicked power behind the throne. But here’s a thought to conjure with. I ask Grieg, who has adapted Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, currently playing to packed houses in London’s West End, how surreal it is to go from that deliciously dark world to the dark drama of Dunsinane. “It’s funny, but Willy Wonka [eccentric chocolatier and maverick recluse] is actually a very Shakespearean character,” responds Greig. “He’s a huge character—and that is very appealing to me. I really like approaching characters who have mythologies about them, characters that you can’t quite get to the bottom of—whether that’s Willy Wonka or Lady Macbeth. There’s the same appeal, to try to explore them further.”

So who was this woman who, surely for the first time ever, has been spoken of in the same breath as Willy Wonka? Who was the woman who married a king who murdered his way to the throne, but brought regime change and peace to Scotland in brutal times?

The academic, historian and broadcaster, Fiona Watson believes that we can’t lay all the blame on Shakespeare for the demonising of the Macbeths. The king’s posthumous reputation had been bloodied, besmirched and blackened by Scotland’s mythmakers—early practitioners of the black art of spin—long before an Englishman dramatised his tragic rise and fall.

In her scholarly, “factional” biography, Macbeth: A True Story, Watson points out that Shakespeare’s Macbeth bears no resemblance to the king who ruled between 1040 and 1057/8. “It is difficult to exaggerate how great an injustice history has inflicted on him and his queen, although Shakespeare was merely repeating, with some of his own embellishment, what was already being said by the Scots themselves,” she says.

Macbeth’s queen was Gruoch—Gruach in Dunsinane—great-great-great-granddaughter of Malcolm I. Macbeth had married her after slaughtering her first husband, Gillacomgain of Moray, Macbeth’s cousin and father of her son, Lulach. Is her image as a virago a farrago of lies? Why is it that she seems more of a monster than Macbeth? And why is it that, most troublingly, of all Shakespeare’s characters the Macbeths seem the most “modern?” 

“One of the things I love about Gruach is the fact that she doesn’t talk much,” says Siobhan Redmond, who is playing the seductive, flame-haired queen for the third time, finding ever more contemporary resonances in the character. “She’s a woman with secrets, a marvel. It’s admirable that she never wastes words. However, that does not mean that she’s not telling the truth. I think she is always telling the truth but she’s not always telling the whole truth. She’s cool enough to think before she speaks, an enviable quality.”

“Ah, the silence of medieval women!” exclaims Watson, to whose impressive and illuminating researches, Greig insists he’ll be for ever indebted, while echoing Watson’s view that the real queen has perhaps been wronged by history even more unjustly than Macbeth himself. Gruoch is conspicuous by her absence from the chronicles and sources scoured by Watson in her intellectually rigorous determination to fill in the “gaping crevasses” in our knowledge about Macbeth’s 17-year reign.

Do not, however, be tempted to interpret Gruoch’s absence as indicative of a weak and submissive personality, warns Watson, pointing to the uniqueness of Gruoch’s only recorded foray into public life. She was named with her husband in documents relating to the gift of land to the Culdee monastic community of St Serf’s, an island in Loch Leven, Fife. “An undeniable hint that this doubly royal woman played an active role both in her marriage and in public life more generally,” Watson writes, stressing that Gruoch made a political match with Macbeth. Her first husband had been murdered by him. She and her fatherless son needed a strong protector; Macbeth fitted the bill perfectly.

Was Macbeth’s queen mad, bad and dangerous to know?

“I think today that when women get to a certain age we’re often described as ‘mad,’ but I do think she’d have made an excellent warrior herself,” Redmond believes. “One thing Gruach does not do is ask for anybody’s approval, despite her awful circumstances—she is, after all, a prisoner of war but she’s a politician, too.” 

Greig says: “Once you take another point of view of Macbeth himself from Shakespeare’s, then you have to think again about this woman, who has been painted as monstrous. You have to recognise that she may have been behaving not only rationally but with honour. I’m not saying that Gruach is a good woman. She’s in a complex situation—and she’s a queen. The real woman came from a very important clan—and this is where Fiona was so helpful—while Macbeth emerged from nowhere. It’s that discovery that made me actually rethink the play, that and the fact that when rehearsals began, we were embroiled in Afghanistan. So, I see Gruach as a woman of authority, but I also wanted her to have her own story. 

“Of course it’s cheeky to write a sequel to a great Shakespeare play, but I wanted to reclaim a bit of our history, and that’s how I feel about Gruach. I’m reclaiming her, too, although there’s a cheekiness in saying, ‘Well, maybe Lady Macbeth was a bit more like this.’ I don’t think that she’s a silent woman—indeed, that’s evident in the final confrontation between Gruach and Siward, when she releases invective upon him, which feels like a curse. The war is embedded and it will not go away so I was interested in her ability to call that up—her very real power to lay a curse.”

Jackie McGlone is a freelance feature writer in the U.K.


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