JOYCE MCMILLAN on DUNSINANE at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, A SLOW AIR at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, and TOP TABLE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts 19.5.11
Dunsinane 4 stars ****
A Slow Air 5 stars *****
Top Table 4 stars ****
THIS COLUMN DOESN’T often issue instructions. But if you care about the future of Scotland and of Britain, and if you love a brilliant, sexy, witty and challenging good night out that will leave you with ideas and images to wrangle with for months to come, then you have no option but to get yourself along to the Royal Lyceum, between now and the 4 June, or to the Citizens’ Theatre, the week after that. David Greig’s Dunsinane – which opened at a glittering premiere on Tuesday, with a memorable buzz of excitement in the air – is the first-ever co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Shakespeare Company; and it’s also one of those landmark productions that subtly change the relationship between Scottish society and the world of theatre, in this case by creating a dynamic collision between the mighty English tradition of Shakespearean drama, and some of the current concerns and perspectives of the great Scottish middle class.
Greig’s brilliant idea is to write a sequel to Macbeth, in which the English army led by the general Siward and the rebel Scots lord Macduff occupy Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinane, kill the tyrant, and set about creating peace in Scotland, under the rule of their preferred candidate for king, Malcolm. The contemporary resonances of the situation – notably with the current position of British troops in Afghanistan, but also with the fast-changing debate about the historic relationship between England and Scotland – are obvious, and brilliantly teased out in Greig’s witty, allusive text. Like a cross between Shakespeare and Robert Bolt, Greig combines a clever, richly enjoyable bourgeois update of history with a strand of dark, beautiful poetry that disturbs the soul; and also a use of the Gaelic language that hints at a whole surviving Scottish culture just beneath the surface of the play, and beyond the grasp of the invaders.
It seems to me that in the end – and paradoxically – Dunsinane is really more of a play for England than for Scotland. What is finest about it is not its observation of Scotland – a series of traditional wily-Celt stereotypes expressed through the cheery banter of the English squaddies – as its profound and deeply empathetic deconstruction of the gradual failure of Siward’s would-be benign imperialism.
Whatever you make of the play’s almost infinite political complexities, though, there can be no doubt that in the twin leading characters of Macbeth’s queen, Gruoch – played with a dazzling womanly strength and brilliance by Siobhan Redmond – and the English general, Siward – a powerful and increasingly ravaged Jonny Phillips – David Greig creates two magnificent stage figures, equally matched in strength and charisma, utterly divided by culture and history. Roxana Silbert’s traditional-looking but superbly swift and kinetic RSC production surrounds them with a fine supporting cast, a beautifully playable dark granite set by Robert Innes Hopkins, and Nick Powell’s fierce metal guitar and cello music, played by a four-piece onstage band. And the whole show comes as balm to the soul of those who want the National Theatre of Scotland to produce big main-stage productions that tackle interesting themes, while looking like top-class conventional theatre. In that respect, as in many others, Dunsinane ticks all the boxes; and it will be the talk of the town, for weeks to come.
If you want a glimpse of sheer perfection in current Scottish playwriting, though, then head for the Tron in Glasgow, where David Harrower – the other great leader of the generation of Scottish playwrights who emerged in the 1990’s – has directed his own production of his latest play, A Slow Air. The play takes the form of a 90-minute double monologue for a middle-aged brother and sister who have been estranged for the past 14 years. Athol lives in Houston, near Glasgow airport, with his wife and his floor-tiling business, proud of his middle-class home and achievements; Morna has stayed in Edinburgh, and survived a wild youth to become a cleaner in the houses of the rich.
From this simple situation, Harrower spins two strands of storytelling and poetry so profound that by the end of the play, it seems as if we have seen a complete, disturbing panorama of ordinary life in Scotland’s central belt today; from the universal western effort to maintain a comfortable middle-class way of life in a new age of terror, to the divisions of class and income that corrode our society, the strands of culture and music that still sometimes unite it, and the strange persistence of the seeemingly fragile bonds of family. Real-life brother and sister Kathryn Howden and Lewis Howden give superbly moving performances as Morna and Athol; and this short, magnificent play – so profound in its local sense of place, so global in its reach and its humanity – will leave your sense of the country we live in subtly shaken and changed, for good.
As for Rob Drummond’s Top Table, this week’s lunchtime offering at Oran Mor – well, with royal weddings in the news, this sly, searing and powerfully-written deconstruction of the idea of the “perfect wedding day” could hardly be more timely. The play takes the form of three speeches, delivered from the top bridal table at what should have been the wedding of Michelle and Craig. Sadly, though, as the speakers have their say – the father of the bride, then the best man, and finally the bride herself – it becomes apparent that everything has gone comically and catastrophically wrong; and Callum Cuthbertson, Ross Allan and Rebecca Benson all give immaculate performances, in a production by David Overend that is hardly overshadowed at all by the memorable sight of Play Pie and Pint producer David MacLennan, introducing the show in full wedding outfit, and a fine pair of tartan trews.
Dunsinane at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 4 June, and at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 7-11 June. A Slow Air at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 21 May, and at the Traverse Theatre in August. Top Table at Oran Mor until 21 May.