Review – Dunsinane, RSC/Hampstead

Say what you want about the RSC, but there’s no arguing that they’re not solid. Everybody faces the audiences, speaks clearly and convincingly, none of the actors are complete duffers, they all wear costumes that don’t look daft and the sword fights are well rehearsed. It’s the sort of thing you want from a quasi-government funded national institution, a modern day Third Programme: terribly sensible people turning out terribly well done material. Reliable, professional, worthy and uncontroversial: the RNLI.

Dunsinane, a new commission by David Greig, is all of these things. Nice set, live music, good costumes, snow in the final scene, convincing sword fights and a well done but completely pointless dance half way though (“I don’t care if it makes sense for them all to dance! We’ve got a choreographer on staff in Stratford we need to justify to the Arts Council! I want dancing in every single production we do!”)

Dunsinane RSC
What really marks Dunsinane out, however, is not the unsurprising strength of the production from this, the most consistent of British companies, but the strength of the text. David Greig plays wonderfully with the story of Macbeth to craft a tale which is both compelling in its own right and a prescient allegory for modern conflict. An English army sweeps into Scotland to depose Macbeth the tyrant and establish Malcolm, the rightful king, on the throne. The war is quickly won, but victory cannot be achieved – and the weary English cannot go home – without a plan to also win the peace, something which they are painfully ill-equipped to do without an understanding of the complex tribal rivalries, ancient grudges and finely balanced truces which really govern the country. The metaphors with Britain’s current conflicts are clear, but the real strength in Greig’s text is that he manages to bring these out without ever stretching them or shoe-horning them into a modern context. The allegory is clear, intelligent and deftly drawn, never veering into obviousness or tastelessness.

The performance are universally solid, as one would expect from this company. But some go beyond this, hinting at the truly superb. Jonny Phillips is exceptional as English Commander Siward, embodying both quiet integrity and nobility, without ever hinting at stiffness, and the weariness of a man shaping a world he doesn’t quite understand. Brian Ferguson (who I must confess I had mistaken for Jonathan Slinger doing a brilliant Scots accent until I read the cast list) is enigmatic and strangely comic as Malcolm, never truly letting on whether his weakness is calculated or genuine. Sam Swann offers an accomplished performance, capturing the bravura and confusion of a young soldier without ever reverting to stereotype or parody.

The Blonde – who would now like to be known as Legally Blonde following a career development and a trip to the Savoy Theatre a few weeks ago – and I were divided on Siobham Redmond, playing Gruach (Lady Macbeth to you Shakespeare scholars out there). She thought that Ms Redmond brought to the role a power, strength and perseverance of character which was admirable and compelling to watch; I was less convinced, being slightly bored by her scenes and unconvinced by her proto-romance with the otherwise very convincing Siward.

It’s perhaps unfortunate for the RSC that they are so unfailingly competent. There are many well funded national institutions, mentioning no names, who regularly fail to present theatre which is even professional, far less compelling and perhaps these failures make their successes, when they come, slightly sweeter.

But work like Dunsinane – a superbly interesting and well-executed script, supported by excellent acting in a faultless production (although Legally Blonde thought the stage was a little small) – is exactly what the RSC should be striving for.