Theatre Review



Dunsinane Caught Between Tragedy and Comedy

January 29, 2015 - Chapel Hill, NC:


Macbeth may be dead, but his story is not. It lives on in the imagination, prompting lovers of the work to read it again, attend another performance, or even perform a bit themselves. But one such lover, David Greig, has been inspired to take Macbeth to another level. He’s imagined and written a sequel, called Dunsinane, which was recently performed by The National Theatre of Scotland and The Royal Shakespeare Company as part of Carolina Performing Arts’ 2014-2015 season.

Dunsinane opens as a rather straightforward sequel: the combined forces of Siward (Darrell D’Silva) and Macduff (Keith Fleming) have overtaken Macbeth and his castle on Dunsinane Hill. Now, as its occupants, they must figure out the next steps. It should be simple, right? Malcolm (Ewan Donald) should slide in as king without any problem. But here Greig throws his first curveball: Lady Macbeth is still alive. Now she goes by her first name ‘Gruach’ (Siobhan Redmond), which rolls right off the back of the throat. And now she has a son, from a pre-Macbeth marriage, who has a claim to the throne that Malcolm wants.

In order to stave off a battle over the throne, Siward proposes that Malcolm and Gruach marry, and each agrees. Yet on the night of the wedding, Gruach’s men storm the castle and free her. The battle is back on and Siward is angry. He sends his men to execute Lulach, Gruach’s son, and they do so after much bloodshed. When Siward returns the body to Gruach, the play wraps up in ridiculous fashion: Gruach is holding Lulach’s child, a baby boy, who is now the true king. Not only did Lady Macbeth fake her own suicide, it seems, she now will reign forever on Dunsinane with an endless supply of male progeny.

Interspersed throughout the drama are scenes “from below,” in which the audience is given a glimpse into the lives of frustrated rank-and-file soldiers. Greig apparently intended these scenes to resonate with the American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and to an extent it worked. After the boy soldier (Tom Gill) shouts, “Why are we here?” repeatedly, the sense of desperation becomes palpable. But apart from that truly dramatic moment, these scenes were extremely difficult to take seriously. Each moment felt like the build-up to a Monty Python gag – there were jokes about Scandinavians, jokes about breasts and penises, even jokes about eating babies.

Soldiers will, of course, tell crude jokes. So will Shakespeare. That’s not the problem here per se. The real problem is that Greig isn’t sure of what he wants Dunsinane to be. It isn’t a tragedy; it isn’t a comedy; it might be a tragicomedy, but the tragic elements never feel weighty because of the flippant comedy coming right around the corner. You get the sense that Macbeth is so dark and deep that any sequel would need Shakespeare’s hand to guide it dramatically. So Greig has written a “sequel,” as the promotional materials call it, in which crude humor and political commentary carry the day more than Shakespearean drama.

The closest Dunsinane comes to a dramatic sequel to Macbeth is in its depiction of Siward, played expertly by Darrell D’Silva. Siward seems like a good guy caught in a hopeless situation, and the audience can certainly empathize with him. D’Silva also cuts a Sean Connery-like figure in his portrayal – old, white-bearded, gruff, and principled. Another standout performance came from Tom Gill as the boy soldier. His solo narrations were consistently animated and his comedic timing often superb.

All of this plays out on a simple set with permanent steps to one side, a door in a brown wall on the other, and a series of props rotating around in between. Fog and mist swirled and hovered throughout – after all, this is Scotland. At times, this bare atmosphere made for confusing scene changes, but it worked wonderfully when falling snow cast an enchanting spell over the final scene. Dunsinane also includes a three-piece band which played an assortment of Scottish and non-Scottish tunes, and two of Gruach’s female attendants who sang in pleasant harmony most of the night.

Do not go see Dunsinane if you want to see a dramatic sequel to Macbeth. But if you want to see an entertaining, well-acted play that uses Macbeth as an imaginative springboard, Carolina Performing Arts’ final performance of Dunsinane is Friday, January 30 at 8 pm in Memorial Hall.

For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.