Something of today this way comes to Hampstead Theatre

PUBLISHED: 15:17 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:44 07 September 2010

A play exploring what happened next in the land of Macbeth is a metaphor for our present-day conflicts, finds Bridget Galton SHAKESPEARE S Macbeth ends with the tyrant slain at Dunsinane Castle and Malcolm pledging to bring order to a troubled land. B

A play exploring what happened next in the land of Macbeth is a metaphor for our present-day conflicts, finds Bridget Galton

SHAKESPEARE'S Macbeth ends with the tyrant slain at Dunsinane Castle and Malcolm pledging to bring order to a troubled land.

But playwright David Greig has imagined how the English army who marched into 11th century Scotland might have struggled to enforce peace in a country riven by civil strife.

Dunsinane, the first of a pair of new plays staged at Hampstead Theatre by the RSC, carries strong echoes of contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It explores how the well-intentioned Siward encounters guerilla uprising as he tries to impose rule on a harsh country whose culture, customs and language he doesn't understand.

Dunsinane's director Roxana Silbert doesn't intend to belabour the comparison because "the play does the metaphor for you and you have to trust it to do its work".

She believes the setting expands the play's relevance.

"Because it is not set now in Afghanistan, it is not just about this war but about the many wars right back to the crusades which are fought with an apparent moral mission. It is about what happens after a place is conquered."

The next play, Dennis Kelly's The Gods Weep, loosely inspired by King Lear, deals with "the mechanics" of contemporary war. It has a similarly epic vision and Silbert felt it made a fitting pairing.

As a Scot, Greig observed how most notions about this period of Scottish history are based on Shakespeare's play. Inspired to research the untold history of Macbeth, he found that Lady Macbeth, for a start, did not go mad and kill herself.

The character of Macbeth's widow Gruach becomes significant in Dunsinane as Siward is drawn into a relationship with her.

Silbert says it's a brilliantly multi-layered exploration of the many ways that people fail to understand each other.

"The people leading this war are trying to do their best for England and for Scotland but because the cultures are so different there is a sense they can never meet. It's very layered, there are linguistic differences, cultural differences and gender differences between the leader of the English and Gruach."

Cast members are learning some Scots Gaelic - a language with the same roots as Irish Gaelic - and Silbert, who is staging the play on a thrust stage with the audience on three sides, says her challenge is to create a credible world that straddles the ancient setting and contemporary themes of the play.

"In the design and soundscape, we are careful not to go too period but it will look and feel like 11th century Scotland. It's a process of trying to create a world you believe in - a production that references that world and sits in theatre time between right now and then.

"The hardest thing has been to create a language that feels fresh and accessible but not anachronistic with the time and setting - in rehearsal we are ironing out lines that feel too modern and some that are too archaic."

Silbert, whose career at Paines Plough, The Traverse and now the RSC has focused almost exclusively on new writing, finds the "creative spring" of working on newly minted work hugely exciting.

"As a director on a new play, you get very involved in the shaping of it and the writer gets very involved with the production. You try to work collaboratively and you both have a vested interest in getting it right. What's exciting is you make the play together. Between the two of you, you do something better than you would individually."

The downside is that, while it can be the "most exciting and creative thing you will ever do," with some writers it can be "the most argumentative and difficult".

There is also the common glitch, as with Dunsinane, that the script is still delivered at the 11th hour.

Silbert, who clearly wasn't phased at getting the completed draft at the end of her second week of rehearsal, shrugs: "Directing a classic you have a long time to vision and conceptualise it, whereas with a new play a lot of your work is getting it on its feet while leaving space for the possibility of change."

Silbert sees her role as "asking the questions an audience would ask," while never forgetting she is essentially realising the writer's vision.

"You have to be careful that you are not just getting them to do the play you want them to do - if that's the case you should write your own or leave them alone."

She strives to hammer out an original production that is strong enough to have any number of subsequent interpretations.

Ultimately, she would rather do a new play than a classic because new writing is "a dialogue with the contemporary world - a way of understanding the world we live in".

"Yes the classics do that but I don't buy the approach that Macbeth is just like Tony Blair or whatever because it's not. It's a different society and context. We live in a culture that is changing so quickly and these playwrights are genuinely writing about the political and emotional dynamics of our world; bringing theatre into its proper place as a form that encourages debate and explores what we think about what's going on."

Dunsinane is at Hampstead Theatre in Swiss Cottage from February 10 until March 6.

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