Monday, February 9, 2015

Macbeth is Dead... Now What do We Do?

So, before I start talking about Dunsinane, the sorta sequel to that Scottish Play written by William Shakespeare all those years ago, I want to take a moment to discuss a rather large moment in Macbeth that is addressed quickly in Dunsinane. Mostly, the large handicap that comes from having one of the main characters in the follow up be someone who was killed rather famously in the first part. Or “seems” to have been killed.

They spend a lot of time on that word “seems.” 

Oh, and spoilers for Macbeth follow. If you haven’t seen it within the 400 years it’s been out, you may want to. It’s a pretty famous play. There’s a version starring Michael Fassbender coming out soon, and another that starred Patrick Stewart that’s already out. So pretty much whichever X-Man you prefer, there’s a pretty good version of it.

So, one of the main characters in Dunsinane, is Lady Macbeth going by the name Gruach in this and somehow all of the characters are shocked and surprised when (spoilers again) she betrays them all. Which is shocking in itself. This power-hungry woman who convinced her husband to kill the king has managed to fool us all! Who could have seen this coming?

Taking it back a step, Lady Macbeth returns for the sequel despite the notable handicap of being killed in the very first play, because William Shakespeare like to kill off characters like a power-mad combination of G.R.R. Martin, Joss Whedon, and Steven Moffat. You can complain about all of those guys you want; Shakespeare once had a guy pursued by a bear off stage because he felt like it. And that was in a comedy. Yeah, Martin, you enjoy your red wedding. Whedon, shoot Tara at the last minute. And Moffat, you kill off River Song as much as you’d like. Shakespeare laughs at you.

But here’s the deal that so many people tend to forget (because hack directors decide they want to show this very important moment on stage) - Lady Macbeth dies off stage. She has a moment where she has a mental breakdown, then goes off and supposedly kills herself. Or “seems” to. And yet here she is, fresh as a daisy and ready to resume her scheming in the sequel. Of course, I never bought it - it was her husband who didn’t have the stomach for killing at the start, despite being a warrior, so she goes in to finish the job. Then, stuff happens, and by the end of it their roles are completely reversed. She seems to be all crazy and Macbeth is the ruler who has a thirst for killing and not worrying about a little rebellion because the witches said - oh my God are those trees moving?

One of the smartest decisions made by David Greig was to bring Lady Macbeth here and gives her the historical name of Gruach, which was more like what her original name would have been back when Shakespeare was reading some old history books deciding which one he was going to turn into his next masterpiece. But they also bring her back, and despite the fact that she doesn’t have as much stage-time, she’s a large presence in the play itself, because, like the historical Lady Macbeth/Gruach, she has a claim to the throne. 

The play is about the aftermath of the death of Macbeth, starting actually around the time that Macduff and his army decide that they’ll just pretend to be trees. In fact, one of the first lines is very comedic - “here, you be a tree” which is a nice comment on the meta-theatricality of what we’re going to be watching. It’s a play, yes, but there are many layers of this play going on.  Siward just wants to bring peace to Scotland initially because it protects the borders with England. Malcolm, originally a symbol of order in the original play here is played almost aloof and unwilling to do what it takes to rule. And Lady Macbeth/Gruach is silently running her own campaign of violence. So there are roles within roles, within roles that everyone is playing. 

And yes, there’s the big honking metaphor that the production is in constant conversation with itself about: you can occupy a foreign nation all you want, but you can’t force everyone to sit down and play nice… even if you force everyone to try and sit down and play nice. 

Most of the play focuses on Siward, the English solider tasked with bringing peace - or at least a new Government - to Scotland. He is a fine character for us to follow, because it’s easy to take part in his descent. The play starts with his son being killed - for the greater good, of course - and he still has to protect his army who is growing increasingly frustrated. He has an affair with Lady Macbeth/Gruach, which makes it that more devastating when she has to marry Malcolm in a scheme to unite the warring Scottish Factions. I found his to be the most interesting section of the play, and I wish they’d spent more time on it. Lady Macbeth/Gruach is the one with the reputation for power and scheming above all else, and for a moment there’s a brief sense of real love between the two characters. But when it comes down to it, it’s not initially Lady Macbeth/Gruach who does the betrayal. Siward is so concerned about his legacy and “getting the job done” that it’s easy to see why she backslides into her old habits. As Siward continues his madness as his obsession with stabilizing Scotland slowly devolves into his obsession with Lady Macbeth/Gruach. Which asks the question: is it guilt? Madness? 

A lot of stories don’t really deserve a sequel. A lot don’t need them. At first glance, Shakespeare’s Scottish play doesn’t really need a sequel - and Shakespeare wasn’t above writing a sequel or two if the moment called for it. And others aren’t above writing sequels for him. I’ve seen sequels (usually in book form) to the Tempest, Hamlet, even Macbeth (focusing on Banquo’s son, who is not mentioned here. The witch part is played up, but the three witches/destiny thing is played down. WAY down.) But by producing a sequel, especially one as compelling as this one, so many years later… it’s a reminder that perhaps we haven’t learned all those lessons we have purported to learn. It’s a reminder that everything old can be new again, not just in the theatre, but in the world in general. 

This play asks a lot of questions, but answers few. Siward, relegated to “background character” and “guy we need to get on stage to get the actor playing Macbeth a break” in Macbeth is one that has divided loyalties, obsessions to duty and honor, and many character traits that make him a compelling character. I’m happy to see him given some of his due here as a take on a character who is initially pretty minor, but with a few tweaks is leading. Which gives me hope for the Bear in a Winter’s Tale, who’s story will be gladly told by the Royal Shakespeare Company one day. Maybe.

Dusinane is playing at the Sidney Harmon Hall in Washington, D.C. I highly recommend you take this opportunity to come watch this show. One of the things I enjoyed in London was the fact that on any given night the theatre was packed… I was disappointed to see that on a Saturday Night, opening weekend for a show the theatre was about half-full. (or half empty) It is a thought-provoking piece that manages to address a centuries old play while keeping in conversation with our current issues, and does so with tragedy, humor, and, well… lots of death.

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