Dunsinane – June 2011

9/10

By: David Greig

Directed by: Roxana Silbert

Company: National Theatre of Scotland (presenting the RSC production in association with the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh)

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 23rd June 2011

Be careful what you ask for – you might get it, is the warning. Well, I asked to see this play again, in a longer run, and preferably at Stratford, and lo and behold, here it is, in Stratford, in a production by the National Theatre of Scotland, based on the RSC’s production which we saw back in February last year, and with some of the same cast as before. Yippee.

Although the NTS production was originally blocked for a proscenium arch theatre, we were seeing this in the Swan, so the cast had to adapt yet again to a different set up. The raised bit from last time was to the back and left of the stage, under the balcony, and everything else was so close to last time that I didn’t spot any changes. This was true of the text as well; although the final scene seemed shorter, I couldn’t have told you what was changed. It was only at the post-show chat that we were told this last scene, Winter, had been the most reworked part, with serious editing, particularly in relation to the dead boy. I’ll have to get another text and compare them sometime.

Overall, I felt this performance was more focused and clearer than the first time we saw the play. Naturally, some of this is down to us being familiar with the story and the text, and some of it will be due to their greater experience with the play, especially performing it in Scotland. But I also think the contrast between the subtle political machinations of the Scottish nobility and the blunt directness of Siward came across more clearly this time. The humour was still there; in fact I reckon it was stronger than last time, but I also felt there were times when I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, such as the final situation where Siward is about to kill the baby. There were some laughs from the audience, and I could understand why, but I didn’t feel like it at that point myself. This came up in the post show discussion too, with people feeling discomfort at some of the ‘funny’ bits, such as the tit-shooting section.

The cast were very forthright in the discussion, and seem to have a great affection for this play. Basically, if anyone offers them a chance to put it on, they’ll be there. There’s a possibility of the States, and I would certainly like to see this again to savour even more of its subtleties, hopefully in Scotland. Siobhan Redmond said that Scottish audiences were immediately aware that Malcolm was a Machiavellian character, whereas English audiences took time to realise what he was up to, and that he wasn’t as weak as he seemed at first.

Something I forgot to mention first time round was the music. I wondered if they’d made any changes this time round, as the rhythms seemed more modern tonight, but both the music and the singing were just as lovely as last time, absolutely beautiful. Having checked my last set of notes, I notice that there was a fire pit in the earlier production which wasn’t used tonight. Otherwise, no other changes that were apparent from my notes.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Dunsinane – February 2010

Experience: 8/10

By David Greig

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Company: RSC

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

Creditors – October 2008

7/10

By August Strindberg, in a new version by David Greig

Directed by Alan Rickman

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 23rd October 2008

I’ve only seen one Strindberg play before, at Chichester, and I was surprised on that occasion to find it more humorous than I’d expected. This play was similar in that respect, and also had the same darkness in all of the characters that appears to be typical of Strindberg’s work.

Three characters meet in the lounge of a Swedish hotel by the sea. There are three scenes, and each scene has two of the characters, so we get to see all of the relationships. At the end, all three are together for what is basically a final, short tableau.

The three people are Adolph, a painter who is unwell, Tekla, his wife who is also a writer, and Gustav, who appears to be a doctor. At first Gustav and Adolph are talking, and it’s clear that Gustav has had a very strong impact on Adolph in a short time. Tekla has been away – she’s expected back at any moment – and it’s the relationship between Adolph and Tekla that Gustav is working on, trying to get Adolph to stand up for himself and take back his manly “rights”, whatever they may be. As a result, Adolph doesn’t go down to the ferry to meet his wife, and when she arrives, all concerned for her husband, Gustav has taken himself off to the next room to overhear their conversation so that he can give Adolph some feedback later.

Husband and wife then have a conversation that shows us their relationship and how Adolph has changed towards her. There’s some frank talk about sex and lovers, and it’s clear they have, or had, a very playful relationship. Now that Adolph has been affected by what he’s heard from Gustav, including a very morbid and detailed description of an epileptic fit, he can’t relate to her in the same way. He wants them to leave that night, while she intends to stay to attend a soiree that evening. He leaves to take a walk in the fresh air and after a short time Gustav re-enters the room.

I’d realised by this time that Gustav had to be Tekla’s first husband, and indeed he was. He now shows his true darkness, as he pretends not to have known she was there. Despite their history, he still manages to seduce her enough to get her agreement to have an assignation with him that night after Adolph has left. She’s partly persuaded by a torn photo of her that Adolph left behind and which Gustav is using to good effect. She finally picks up on this because of something he said, and realises, too late, that she’s been had. As Gustav explains to her the way in which he’s corrupted Adolph as revenge for her betrayal, Adolph is revealed at the door. He’s been listening to their conversation, and now he’s succumbed to Gustav’s programming. He falls into the room suffering from his first epileptic fit, and the play ends with Tekla trying to help him and Gustav commenting that she really does love him.

This description doesn’t get across the lightness and humour in much of this play. Despite appearances, and all of the characters being unpleasant in their own way, I liked the gritty way in which Strindberg was examining these relationships. While I find these plays not as satisfying as those which include the light with the dark – Strindberg really isn’t interested in anything “good” about his characters or people in general from what I’ve seen – I find he makes some good observations about men and women, and introduces some interesting ideas. I was struck once again by how much energy for change there was in Scandinavia at that time. This comes out in Ibsen’s work as well. There were also some comments about how we pick up habits from those around us, especially those we are close to, and how difficult it is to tell who has influenced us and how much.

But the main pleasure for me was the performances. Owen Teale as Gustav conveyed just the right amount of malice concealed behind a well-intentioned exterior. I could see why Tekla had left him in the first place. He wanted to control everything and couldn’t stand to let her get away. Anna Chancellor as Tekla was superb, showing us all the intelligence, passion and vulnerability of this modern woman. And Tom Burke as Adolph gave us a believable victim, despite the increasingly absurd and extreme pronouncements of Gustav. He was like a rabbit in the headlights, transfixed and unable to move. A really good production all round.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me