By David Greig
Directed by Roxana Silbert
Venue: Hampstead Theatre
Date: Wednesday 24th February 2010
We’ve come to expect very little from the RSC’s new writing in recent years – interesting ideas, good performances, but the plays need work (sometimes a lot of work). So it’s a delight to find that this new play is not only interesting and not only has some great performances, but is also a fully fledged piece which I would like to see have a longer run, preferably at Stratford (in the Swan, please).
The Hampstead Theatre’s auditorium was seriously remodelled for this production. The first three rows of seats were removed, and placed on the right hand side of the stage, which cascaded out in a triangular shape into the space between the seats. From the left of the stage, now the back, a set of irregular stone steps flowed down from a high point, topped by a Celtic cross. The ground below was fairly neutral, both in colour and texture. There was one fire pit opened up during the second half, otherwise it stayed the same (as far as I can remember). There were three ‘chandeliers’ hung across the stage – basic flat wooden circles with numerous candles – and in the second half some bare tree trunks with a few branches were planted here and there. Centre back were some doors, removed in the second half. Furniture was brought on as needed, and the removal men were very efficient. Costumes clearly reflected each ‘side’ or nationality, with the English soldiers wearing chain mail covered by white tabards with the red cross, and the Scots being dressed in leather tunics, cloaks and woollen breeches, apart from the women, of course. The queen wore a lovely deep blue gown which set off her long red hair beautifully, while her women looked more like nuns in their simple clothes. Almost forgot – the band were at the very back, looked like a three-piece.
The play began with a young English soldier telling us of his experiences on the way to Scotland. He spoke to us a few times during the play, as if he were writing letters to his mum. The next thing, all these other soldiers trooped on carrying skimpy bits of branches with leaves. The sergeant handed a branch to the young lad and told him to pretend he was a tree. He then gave the group some coaching in how to look like a forest. It was a very funny scene, and got us off to a good start. To the RSC’s credit, they put enough bodies on stage to make a credible army which really helped the performance, especially as they got them on and off remarkably swiftly.
Next we saw the queen and a couple of men, but as they were speaking Gaelic I haven’t a clue what they were saying – no surtitles. She hugged one of them and he headed off while the other chap, who’d been shooting arrows through the window of the door, stayed behind. When the English soldiers turned up he was soon killed, and pretty quickly the fighting was over. Siward learned of the death of his son, while another Englishman, Egham, entertained us all by doing his man-flu routine over a minor arrow-in-the-shoulder injury. Siward pulled it out for him, not that he got any thanks as Egham passed out from the pain.
Now we were into the post-war phase, or peace, as Siward liked to think of it. Trouble is, it turned out that not only was the queen still alive, she has a son who was now in hiding (the chap who ran off earlier) and not all the Scottish nobles are straining at the leash to shower Malcolm with their vows of allegiance. When Siward raised these points with Malcolm, he was given a wonderfully funny lesson on the Scottish way of using language, which seemed to involve a fairly liberal use of the word ‘seems’. In other words, Malcolm told the English what they needed to hear to get them to invade, but calling Malcolm a liar to his face will get you into trouble. Ring any bells?
After this, Macduff gave Siward an explanation of Scottish politics that made my head swim, never mind his, and I knew a little bit about the setup beforehand. Basically, there were two royal houses in Scotland, Moray and Alba, constantly at war with one another. Gruach, the queen who is still alive, is the highest ranking princess in the Moray line, and whoever she marries becomes king, while her children are the heirs. Personally I think passing the kingship through the female line is a much more sensible approach, since before DNA testing it wasn’t always possible to know who the father was, but the mother was pretty obvious. Of course, even now there can be doubts about royal bloodlines, despite our modern technology, but that’s another story.
Back to the historical situation. Malcolm is the heir of Alba, and apparently unencumbered with wife and kids, so Siward’s proposal at the end of the first half that Gruach and Malcolm marry to unite the two houses must have seemed like a really good idea at the time, at least to him. My first thought was, who’s going to kill who first? The festivities had scarcely got under way when Gruach’s followers invaded the castle, killed a load of people and took her away, a fitting climax to the first half.
The second half was less funny, but then there was more killing, including the execution of Gruach’s son, and Gruach herself wasn’t around till the final scene as we were seeing the action from the English perspective. Questions about the English reasons for still being there abounded, as they now indulged in great brutality with no clear purpose in view. Siward wanted ‘peace’, but hadn’t grasped that there are some wars you can’t win in a pitched battle, the simple way. They need a devious kind of political understanding, and even then the deep rooted loyalties keep getting in the way, even when these allegiances are always shifting and ephemeral. The best option all round was for the English forces to get out, but we didn’t get to see that far in this play. Instead, we were left at the end with Siward delivering Gruach’s son’s mutilated corpse to her, and her showing Siward her grandchild who is, at least in her view, the next king of Scotland. When he couldn’t bring himself to kill it, to try and create some kind of unity out of the mess that he’s helped to bring about, Siward headed off, leaving Gruach alone on the stage, a dramatic and powerful conclusion.
There was much more humour than this description brings out, and I really enjoyed myself this afternoon.
© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me