WhatsOnStage Logo


By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes...

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
WhatsOnStage logo

If is bad luck to say the name of "the Scottish play" in a theatre, to write a sequel to Macbeth itself must by the thespian equivalent of forcing two-hundred black cats to walk beneath two hundred ladders on Friday the 13th. But David Greig, the reigning playwright King of the National Theatre of Scotland, has proven that neither succession nor superstition can dampen the power of Dunsinane's ascension to becoming one of the most satisfying pieces from our national company yet.

As Wicked taught us what might have happened before Dorothy got herself those cracking new shoes, Dunsinane imagines what might have happened after the "bloody butcher" has been beheaded. Drawing obvious and well-observed parallels with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the play explores how Siward, the head of the advancing English army who had that great idea about tree branches, would organise the installation of a new king in Scotia.

Having rather unconvincingly shaken off her madness, Lady Macbeth has survived the assault on the castle and rebranded herself as Gruach, a noble clanswoman with allegiances that Siward needs to win to settle the country's political system and install Malcolm as King. Caught up? Good!

Simplistic and solemn, Robert Innes Hopkins's design is beautiful, only decorated with a stony, cold Celtic cross and dry ice, the smouldering remnants of Macbeth's blazing reign of fire. The drama is further heightened by the beauty of Chahine Yavroyan's lighting, casting a murky cloud which is almost like looking into the past itself.

Perhaps because they spend most of the evening in military dress, the cast are uniformly excellent. As ombudsman of the new Scotland, the nuances of the character of Siward explored by Jonny Phillips are quite exception, taking this bit-part of history on emotional journey that stretches from Berwick to John O'Groats. Understated, assured and witty, Sandy Grierson's portrayal of Malcolm as Malcolm, the contemptuous heir presumptive, is deliciously funny, and the sweet narrative naivety of Tom Gill as a young English soldier on his first expedition North is absolutely charming.

Whilst functional and believable as a character in her own right, the sole disappointment of the evening is the characterisation and motivation of Gruach and her part in the sequel. Like receiving an artificially sweet Diet Coke when you want the full-sugar, tooth rotting equivalent, the character doesn't transition as one might hope, lacking the bite and the poison that might be expected from one of literature's most celebrated monsters. Though well observed and well performed, Siobhan Redmond's Gruach is responsive to the script and, consequently, lacks a little of that Macbeth magic.

When we got to see a Shakespearean comedy, we tell ourselves we should laugh at the hey-nonny folly of it all. Here, we have an altered image of Shakespeare which is at times hilariously funny and incredibly sad, an episode of "Horrible Histories" for English graduates which at times makes the heart ache. Greig has written a fantastic satire of what Scotland is, how it gets on with its neighbours and how the world looks towards our past and towards our future. As Macbeth was written to satirise the powerful exertions of the witch-hating Scottish King James, Dunsinane could not be more relevant to the current ideal of what Scotland is.