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In a town that so often seems to have #newplay fever, scripts that were written last week often generate automatic enthusiasm. Yes, it’s wonderful that the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities generously funds local playwrights, that so many theaters focus on new work, and that the National New Play Network is based here. But at the moment, the best productions of recent scripts are onstage at Shakespeare Theatre, because sometimes what it takes to make great new drama is classical acting and very old stories.
Dunsinane, Scottish playwright David Greig’s sequel to Macbeth, and The Metromaniacs, David Ives’ new translation of a 1738 French farce, both run through most of February at Shakespeare’s two Penn Quarter venues. Both are with seeing, but if you can only spring for one $18 under-35 discount theater ticket, send your parents and English major friends to see Metromaniacs, and get thee to Dunsinane.
The National Theatre of Scotland is back for its fourth D.C. visit in five years, and it is very much back with a vengeance: the vengeance of Lady Macbeth, who in this production is not a crazy person running around trying to wash imaginary stigmata off her hands, but an incredibly smart and sexy redhead played by Siobhan Redmond. Over the course of the drama, she’ll sing in Gaelic, sleep with a hot invader, ace a courtly wedding dance and fend off a homicidal ex in the middle of a gently falling onstage blizzard.
What a woman. What a show. Dunsinane was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2010 and has been almost constantly in revival ever since. Much of the cast on this U.S. tour (going on to Chicago and Los Angeles) has done the play before, and there are few theatrical pleasures that exceed watching a stage full of classically trained British actors who know what they’re doing. Director Roxana Silbert and her creative team have devised a staging that is beautiful yet nearly bare. The sets include the suggestion of a castle, which at show’s opening has just been overtaken by the English. Macbeth is slain, and his body is glimpsed beneath the blue and white cross, but he’s never referred to by name. He’s simply called, “the tyrant.” Like his wife’s reported mental state, however, that title may be matter of perception. “He was a good king,” Lady Macbeth says in her eulogy. “He ruled for 15 years. Before him there were kings and kings and kings and none of them could rule for more than a year.” When Siward, leader of invading English troops, asks if he always did what she said, she replies, “Mostly.”
Like a post-colonial critic, Greig suggests that the man who wrote the Scottish play may have been anti-Scottish. During the months leading up to last summer’s stay-with-England referendum, Greig lobbied for separatism on Twitter. In his play, he presents English distaste for the Scots as a given circumstance and source of humor rather than as a topic for debate. Just as effectively, Greig compares England’s 11th-century invasion to the 21st-century occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and suggests Siward’s attempt to unite the Scottish tribes under Malcolm is akin to failed Bush/Blair nation-building.
In the hands of most American playwrights, attempts at Iraq War allegories tend to devolve into preachy rants or merely preach to the choir. Like Black Watch, the contemporary war drama that the National Theatre presented here in 2011 and 2012, Dunsinane presents the soldiers as rough-and-tumble but worthy of sympathy and wise to the futility of their missions. As a chorus of infantrymen ponders aloud early in Dunsinane, “This country… You wonder why we’re here. You wonder why we want the place. You wonder why they give a fuck.”
610 F St. NW. $20-$110. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org