What begins with a group of soldiers being given a Python-esque drama lesson in how to convincingly portray a forest, quickly turns into a thoughtful and evocative exploration of war in David Greig’s Macbeth-inspired Dunsinane.
From the opening moments, as Sam Swann’s youthful, naïve boy soldier describes his first experiences of travelling to Scotland, eager for battle but not knowing what to expect, it is clear there is far more to Greig’s new play for the Royal Shakespeare Company than a ‘what happened next’ of Macbeth.
An English army trying to bring peace in a foreign land they don’t understand, not necessarily for the good of that country, but for the benefit of England; young soldiers dying senselessly; unexpected and inexplicable forms of ambush; a politicking king who plays games with words rather than making his standpoint clear: it is not too difficult to make the associations.
Yet this is not a dense political treatise. Greig’s Dunsinane, with its pillaging, war and intrigue, is an adventurous tale with a thoughtful heart. Rambunctious troops provide much of the humour in their banter and games, while the journey of Jonny Phillips’s lupine old soldier Siward, a man who sees the world in black and white, right and wrong, only to be scarred by this new type of war he doesn’t understand, draws you in and grips you as though with a gauntleted hand.
Siobhan Redmond, making her return to the RSC, balances power and sensuality as the widow Grauch, enigmatic and manipulative to the last. Though not overtly the power-hungry driving force of so many productions of Macbeth, Redmond leaves you in no doubt she will put everything on the line for her beliefs.
The action never lags in Roxana Silbert’s production, which sees Robert Innes Hopkins’s design thrust, blade-like, to the heart of the redesigned Hampstead theatre auditorium, just as Greig’s engrossing new play also gets to the heart of the broad experience of a war fought not for money but for the unobtainable ideal peace.