Saturday, 4 June 2011

Kirk Attacks Vile: Dunsinane II

Gareth K Vile’s review of Dunsinane might be agreeable in the dramatic specifics – good performances, well written, a mixture of grand tragedy and comic interludes – but his regionalist sympathies have blinded him to the political meaning of David Greig’s sequel to Macbeth. For all the humanist sympathy for the English squaddies, who kill and die for a cause they barely understand, the relationship between England and Scotland is repeatedly shown as unequal and abusive.

Above all, England is clearly an invader: it is English troops that ravage the countryside, and an English leader who worries about an unstable Scotland. The brutality of the second act – children are killed and quartered, entire villagers are massacred – is precipitated by the thwarted passions and good intentions of the English commander. When the Scottish clans respond with a medieval version of suicide bombing, which stresses the link between past English adventures and modern jaunts into the Middle East, it is the desperate violence of the dispossessed. Greig, a visitor to Palestine, is not unaware of the parallels and pressures that lead to extremism.

Scotland is depicted as both geographically and culturally different to England. The soldiers’ descriptions of the landscape, poetic and precise, contrast the mountains and snow with the flat and warmth of England. Their desire to integrate – seduce local girls -  is thwarted by a language barrier. The English commander Siwald, a warrior who looks for peace, is disgusted by King Malcolm because he does not understand the nuance of clan rivalry.  What appears to him as decadence is merely a way to avoid violence. Malcolm’s strategy, of being too ineffectual to attract envy or threat, is familiar to anyone who has caught the 38 bus across Glasgow on a Saturday night. The relentless English insistence on honesty and reason leads to the resumption of a civil war. The message is clear: the two nations do things differently, and England’s presence is a disaster.

Greig is quite obviously more sympathetic to the moderate, and dishonest, characters. Malcolm, and Siward’s assistant, have different moral compasses, and this allows them to survive in the chaos. Like heroes from a Grahame Green novel, they lack the sort of intensity that makes them tragic, yet they do less harm. When Greig moves Siwald and Lady Macbeth to their dramatic finale, the echoes of Greek tragedy insist on the consistent message of Sophocles: it is better to small than great.

If Macbeth is an obvious source, Greig is dealing with more ancient plays: the tragic ending brilliantly recalls Virgil’s Aeneid IV, as Lady Macbeth’s appeal to future generations echoes Dido’s curse on Aeneas. For Virgil, this explained the violent enmity between the Carthaginians and the Romans: here, Greig mythologizes the Anglo-Scottish bitterness. And like Virgil, Greig recognises the importance of the poet in defining a nation.

That Greig avoids the obvious – Malcolm is no English stooge, and Lady Macbeth is not stripped of her malevolent majesty – and pictures a complex nation, prone to self-harm and proud. Not naive enough to see nationhood as simple, nor willing to relinquish a common humanist compassion, Greig rescues nationalism from the politicians that Gareth K Vile despises.

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