Role Playing: Siobhan Redmond sees re-formed Lady Macbeth as valiant queen in ‘Dunsinane’
Interview: Praising the succinct poetry of playwright David Greig’s drama, Irish actress admits it was daunting to be cast as the hope of Scotland whose royalty is disputed under an English occupation force. Produced by National Theatre of Scotland at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, through March 22.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
The scale of the thing, actress Siobhan Redmond was saying of David Greig’s play “Dunsinane,” is enormous. No less might be said of her expansive, shrewd performance as the embattled widow of Macbeth who, weaponless, must prevail against an English force come to install her rival Malcolm on the throne of Scotland. But filling that psychological frame, says Redmond, required some deep breaths and a leap of conviction.
“I have no idea what it’s really like to be a queen, to run a country, or to have a child,” says the veteran Irish actress, who portrays this cunning survivor — yes, Lady Macbeth lives! — called Gruach in the National Theatre of Scotland’s current production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. “But the audience must believe that I have the weight of Scotland on my back. In every scene, Gruach points out that she is the queen, even as all the traditional charges leveled at a politically strong woman are leveled at her. At every point, she is dealt the weaker hand – but she always emerges with the stronger hand.”
The dealer is the English commander Siward, Earl of Northumberland (played by Darrell D’Silva), who quickly has Gruach in his grasp. But just as quickly, this smart and willful queen has him in her thrall. Their cat-and-mouse game evolves into the dramatic core and theatrical delight of all that follows.
“Darrel and I have been friends for 20 years, and we can read each other very well,” says Redmond. “We’re both quite front-footed: If you’re there wearing the frock, saying the lines, you might as well rock up completely. Darrell is two hands full and a bit more, so we’re constantly finding new things in our scenes together. No two performances are alike. I go with whatever he brings, and that’s never the same twice.”
In one pivotal, indeed defining, moment, Siward storms into Gruach’s chambers in hot exasperation over her refusal to step aside and allow her supporters – numerous, resistant and invisible – to recognize Malcolm’s right of kingship. He’s also vexed with Gruach for hiding her son, whom she declares the rightful king. As their argument plays out, he stinging and she floating, the high commander’s heat gets sharply rechanneled.
“He comes in murderously angry with her and they end up spending the night together,” says Redmond. “When we play that scene, I have to be completely receptive to Siward. I must drive the scene while appearing not to drive it – I don’t have the driving language, he does.
“Gruach is very good at reading people. She’s interested in Siward. They don’t really fall in love. It’s almost an archetypal thing. I know he’s important not because he’s a general or because he has my life in his hands, but because he’s someone who could be king. He’s made of king material. And he knows himself that he’s capable of that.”
Siward is quieted, disarmed, redirected by Gruach’s womanly wiles. She seduces him.
“Actually, they’re drawn together. They have things in common,” says Redmond. “David Greig emphasized that in rehearsals. “Siward is attractive and knows that about himself. She is similarly terrifying and alluring because she is so powerful, and that’s quite interesting to me.
“But it took me a long time to work up to the seduction scene. I’m a fairly old actress and I was worrying about whether the audience would believe this woman could seduce a man. And then I decided, ‘She’s the queen in the room, and no one’s going to tell her she’s not appealing.’”
Redmond is the only actress to have portrayed Gruach since the premiere of “Dunsinane,” named for Macbeth’s great castle, five years ago. Surprisingly enough, she has never played Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, whose single-minded ferocity becomes more restrained and politically measured in her reincarnation by Greig.
“I don’t think about that woman,” Redmond insists. “I’m working in the world of the play I’m in. That said, very occasionally I find lines of Shakespeare’s play floating into my head.”
She acknowledged one such line, Lady Macbeth’s urgent counsel to the uneasy thane as they plot King Duncan’s murder: “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.”
“I know the song, so to speak,” Redmond says. “Depending on what you show her, she shows you something different. And Gruach is a woman of very little small talk. I admire those mysterious people who are happy to sit with silence. She has the fewest lines of any of the major characters, and yet the language of the play provides her with wonderful interpretive resources.
“Greig did this cheeky thing, starting with a character that exists in a classic and brilliant piece and taking her in a direction you might not have anticipated. But he also makes two small homages to ‘Macbeth.’ There’s no vocabulary in his play that was not in use in Shakespeare’s time. And as in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth is never referred to by name, but rather as the tyrant or my king.”
Redmond speaks neither the Gaelic of her homeland nor Scots Gaelic, though Gruach and her attendants communicate in the ancient tongue — an utterly impenetrable code to the occupying English. But Greig’s queen is fluent in the language of her captors.
“I wanted her to sound like someone who speaks very good English, but thinks in Scots-Gaelic,” the actress says. “I also wanted to give the audience the idea that she’s from an older world that works in a different, more fluid way. Gruach’s speech is spare, but what she says looks like poetry on the page. It’s magical thinking: The flower and the serpent exist in the same word.”
- Siobhan Redmond’s history with National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Shakespeare Company: Read about her here
- Review of ‘Dunsinane’: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
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