Review – Dunsinane – Royal Shakespeare Company at Hampstead Theatre

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Dunsinane, presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Hampstead Theatre, had all of the benefits a good budget and well-trained company can bring to the stage with all of the risks of a new script. In this case, the risk was somewhat mitigated by a fairly established playwright (David Greig) working within the context of some extremely well-known Shakespeare (Macbeth); the question than became, could it live up to its source of inspiration? Might it even be another Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead?

What it managed to be was competent and yet uninspiring, a good window into Scottish culture with a nice tie-in to current issues that had occasionally beautiful language. First to appear of the main characters was “The Boy Soldier” (usually called “Boy,” played Sam Swann), who got most of the poetical text (frequently describing the landscape of Scotland) and seemed like he might have come out of Black Watch or some other play set in a modern war – basically an innocent providing a grunts-eye view of conflict. This character was the most unlike anything in the Shakespeare, as instead of operating in the world of royalty and commanders he was stuck in the mud, as far from master of his destiny as one could be. Another new character was “Gruach” (Siobhan Redmond) – well, actually, she was meant to be Lady Macbeth but was completely unlike the character of the first play. She was far more regal and, in my opinion, far more Scottish; less hateful, more nuanced, and more believable, if still ultimately Machiavellian. Redmond played her wearing the world’s worst wig and a dress straight out of a Millais painting, but still was convincing – mostly. At times she sounded heavy and forced, as if she was reading from a ballad.

Most interesting of the characters was red-headed King Malcolm (Brian Ferguson), who was a king unlike any other I’ve seen on stage; seriously concerned with staying in power, weak but thoroughly aware of the cultural milieu in which he was placed and attempting very actively to make the best of it – through wine and wenching. His explanation of his theory of rule was highly unique. I found him reminding me of the Shah of Iran – placed in power from the outside but very interested in keeping control.

Finally, we have Siward (Jonny Phillips), the commander who “just wants to make things right.” He has all of the power Malcolm wants, but no desire to rule; he wants to make Scotland a peaceful country, but because he’s utterly ignorant of Scottish history and culture, he will not be able to succeed. To me, he really seemed to represent the US ambitions in Iraq – dreaming of making a better world for its own sake, but wrecking the country, the people, and himself.

Despite these strong characters and the high degree of competence with which all roles were performed, Dunsinane never managed to get anywhere near the level of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or even a Crucible. Ultimately, I think it will be a bit of a historical curiosity, but unlikely to be revived other than by high schools or Shakespearean societies, and without the top-drawer talent RSC was able to provide, its weak bones will show themselves all too clearly.

(Dusinane ended its run at the Hampstead Theatre on March 6th, 2010. This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, March 5th. For another tardy review, see SansTaste.

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One Response to “Review – Dunsinane – Royal Shakespeare Company at Hampstead Theatre”

  1. Review – Henry V – Southwark Playhouse « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] – and I found it far more engaging than the RSC show I’d seen just a week before (Dunsinane) and (in retrospect) more memorable than the much sharper Measure for Measure I saw the next night […]

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