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“Dunsinane,” aka MacBeth.2, on Stage in D.C.

A look at playwright David Greig's ambitious drama, now at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall

Sex, violence and rock and roll (as it might have sounded in the mid-1000s) drive this ambitious, if patchy, sequel to Shakespeare’s towering “MacBeth.” For those who want to know what happened after “Great Birnam wood [comes] to high Dunsinane” (Act 4, scene 1), this is Scottish playwright David Greig’s imaginative take on it.

The play opens with the English army disguising itself as a forest (bearing Birnam Wood tree boughs) and marching on MacBeth’s Dunsinane Castle. The troops are led by Siward, played by Darrell D’Silva with an affecting admixture of self-confidence and self-doubt. After winning the battle in which MacBeth is killed (offstage), Siward is shocked to find Gruach, i.e. Lady MacBeth (Siobhan Redmond with the wisdom and wiles of a twenty-first century feminist), not only alive but putting herself out there as the Queen of Scotland. (Shakespeare, of course, seemed to have killed Lady MacBeth, perhaps by suicide, in Act 5, scene 5, when a woman’s cry is heard from offstage and MacBeth is told his wife is dead.)

“Dunsinane” at Sidney Harman Hall
Ewan Donald as Malcolm (©Jason Ma)

The Siward-Lady MacBeth love-hate relationship and its wrenching, often bloody, ramifications form the spine of the play. Siward seeks to impose a workable political and moral post-war order by force, while the newly anointed Malcolm pursues that goal more diplomatically. Upping the odds against any success are Lady MacBeth’s obsession to have her heirs be King, the Scots’ indigenous resistance to English rule and Siward’s own army’s discontent. The playbill notes draw parallels with the U.S. experience in Afghanistan, but viewers might be hard-pressed to perceive such while trying to keep up with the action on stage.

And that’s not always easy. Locales may change, but the simple set, by designer Robert Innes Hopkins, remains static. Although time passes, everyone wears almost the same clothes throughout, and no one seems to sleep or wake. And although the body count is high with battle deaths, murders, and a suicide, the motivations of perpetrators are not always clear. 

Nevertheless, director Roxana Silbert and movement director Anna Morrissey keep the production aswirl, often with the help of music. A three-piece group on stage (percussion, cello and guitar) provides a soundtrack, often up-tempo, to underscore the action. And Lady MacBeth’s attendants, Helen Darbyshire and Mairi Morrison, chant lilting, wordless melodies.

The dialogue, in part, is quite funny, and the audience often laughs out loud. Greig’s humor may not run as deep or be as integral to the plot as Shakespeare’s, but it’s a welcome respite from the blood drawn by all the swords, knives and arrows. 

“Dunsinane” is a presentation by The National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Shakespeare Company that presented “Black Watch” here in 2012 and won a number of local awards. Artistically “Dunsinane” has little to do with “Black Watch,” except for the rigor, spectacle and integrity of its staging.

Through February 21 at Sidney Harman Hall, Shakespeare Theatre Company, 610 F St. NW, 202.547.1122