Disclaimer time: This is a review of a preview performance. Dunsinane opens to critics officially this Wednesday, and in theory elements of the production could change before then.
The Royal Shakespeare Company do commision new plays, but they tend to like a vague Shakesperean connection in them. Sometimes the link can be pretty tenuous, others show their inspiration more clearly. David Greig's Dunsinane is among the latter, following straight on from the events of Macbeth. Macbeth himself is never referred to by name, only as The Tyrant, but Malcolm and Macduff are present and correct, as is the English general Siward (Jonny Philips) who takes centre stage in this sort-of-sequel. Having installed a new ruler, Siward finds that peace doesn't assert itself just like that, and there are still rival factions battling, so he and his army have to stay for an eventful year. At the centre of the power struggle is Siobhan Redmond's Gruach, aka Lady Macbeth. It seems reports of her death were convenient spin, something that turns out to be Malcolm's strong suit.
For the RSC's two-play residency at Hampstead, I was allocated a front row seat in what were described as Stage Seats. Actually Robert Innes Hopkins' design isn't along Equus lines but rather part of a recent trend I'm all in favour of, where traditional proscenium arch stages are reconfigured. Following the Old Vic's year in the round, the Royal Court Downstairs' transformation into a catwalk (and upcoming one into a boxing ring) and the Almeida going traverse, Hampstead Theatre has been transformed into a wedge-like thrust stage. I can't vouch for what it's done to the sightlines at the back of the stalls but I suspect they're still OK, and certainly from up close the redesign gives the black stone set powerful dramatic effect.
The play is a bit overlong but for the most part Roxana Silbert's production keeps the momentum up. While this might be a million miles away from Greig's recent hit, the romantic comedy Midsummer, there are a lot of funny moments to cut the tension, and some very black humour during the climcatic confrontation. Early on there's perhaps a few too many obvious references to what recent events the play is commenting on (Greig doesn't actually use the phrase "regime change" but he might as well) but these ease off after the first act. There's a lot going on and not all of it works but there's some very striking stuff in here as well - the scene that I'll probably most remember has the weak, unsympathetic but brutally honest new king Malcolm (Brian Ferguson) addressing the Thanes and telling them exactly how much he's going to screw them over, and just why they're all going to accept it.
Dunsinane by David Greig is booking until the 6th of March at Hampstead Theatre.