I’ve just come out of a very dramatic weekend, in, I hasten to add, the theatrical sense of the word. On Saturday I was at the Birmingham Rep for the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of David Greig’s play, Dunsinane, followed on Sunday by the National Theatre’s Othello, screened around the country as part of the NTLive initiative. Walking into The Rep on Saturday afternoon I hadn’t given much thought to any possible way in which the two plays might reflect on each other, but by Sunday evening I found myself deliberating about what each of them has to say about the nature of war and, more especially, about what military conflict does to those who are caught up in it. It wasn’t just a dramatic weekend but also a war torn one.
I first saw Dunsinane two years ago when it was staged in the Swan Theatre at Stratford. As the title suggests it has close ties to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, although part of what Greig sets out to do is give a more accurate portrayal of Scottish history at this time, which means acknowledging that Macbeth actually ruled for over fifteen years and that compared with a lot of his counterparts he wasn’t a bad king at all. It also means that as the play opens Lady Macbeth is still alive and fighting to put her son on the throne rather than the English backed Malcolm. The central dramatic interest is the relationship between Gruach (Lady Macbeth) and Siward, the commander of the English forces, with a cynical political commentary from Malcolm running alongside.
In the Swan, which is a small theatre that draws audiences in and very much encourages involvement with the characters, what came over most strongly was the way in which the ‘common man’ was destroyed by the whim of those above him. There is a choric figure, called simply the boy soldier, who speaks directly to the audience and who we watch becoming hardened through the course of the play. Forced to acts of violence himself and seeing his comrades killed before his eyes, he soon loses the innocence of his opening monologue but nevertheless he is bound by his duty to his commander and the play finishes with his dogged obedience to Siward’s order that they go on searching for a child almost certainly dead, in the name of a cause they have both forgotten about.
The Rep is a much bigger theatre with a wide stage that is configured completely differently to that of the Swan. Although the sight-lines and acoustics are superb it is still possible to be a very long way from the action and so, although this was the same production, by the same director and with almost the same cast, there were times when I thought I was watching an entirely different play.
What came through most strongly this time was the nature of war itself rather than the effect it has on the individual. This time I found myself listening more closely to what MacDuff has to say about war in Scotland and by extension to any country where there are tribal groupings fighting for domination in a landscape that makes survival itself a battle. When Siward suggests that it would be best if the English went home and left the Scots to live in peace, Macduff just laughs at him and points out that all the presence of the English has done is give the clans someone new to fight against. If Siward withdraws the conflict will go on because the Scots will simply go back to fighting each other. In tribally organised countries it isn’t peace that is interrupted by war but rather a continuing state of war that is very occasionally punctuated by a fragile peace. Disturbing as this is as a concept when you look back in history it is hard not to acknowledge the truth of what MacDuff is saying. Even more disturbing is the way in which it resonates with current conflicts. I came out of the theatre even more unsettled by the thought of the damage done by Western intervention in overseas war-zones than I was before.
And then there was Sunday’s performance of Othello. Set in the present day with all the main male participants in battle fatigues I realised for the first time that it is the fact of the army environment that is key to this play. When you have the constant reminder before your eyes that these are soldiers suddenly the motivation and the means that propel Iago’s plot make complete sense. As Jonathan Shaw, Commander of the British-led Division in Basra, says in the programme notes trust is the basis of all soldiering and Othello himself tells us that he has known nothing but the life of a soldier since he was seven years old. In all probability he and Iago will have found themselves in situations on the battlefield where it has been necessary to put implicit faith in the knowledge that each has the other’s back. There will almost certainly have been occasions where each has saved the other’s life. What hope does a marriage of a few weeks, an acquaintance of no more than months, have against a bond like this? Othello knows he can trust Iago, not just in his word but in his deed. Desdemona doesn’t stand a chance.
And what of Iago and his motiveless malignity? His trust has been betrayed as well. He has every right to expect the preferment that instead goes to Cassio. He has proved himself, not just as a fighting man but also as a comrade. In a profession where promotion ought to follow merit that position as Lieutenant should have been his. When he doesn’t get it, when Othello betrays his trust, he tips. There was absolutely no overt suggestion of this in the performance, but I found myself thinking about the number of army personnel that we now know develop some form of mental health issue after years of service and in the light of that what Iago does seems not only completely believable but also completely understandable. In fact, excellent as Adrian Lester’s performance as Othello is, this production belongs to Rory Kinnear’s Iago. The menace of the man who can smile and smile and be a villain when seen in the dress of a modern day soldier is remarkable.
The other thing that the modern day setting emphasises is the dynamite that is the situation Othello finds when he reaches Cyprus. He has set out thinking that he is going to be commanding troops in battle, a role he knows well and for which he is supremely suited. What he finds instead is a war that is over. Just like the Armada in 1588 the enemy has been drowned and as a result his role changes to that of overseeing a garrisoned force with not enough to do. This demands the skills of a politician rather than those of a battlefield tactician. Skills that Othello knows are not his strongest point. When you are faced with a bunch of bored squaddies play fighting like a litter of growling puppies it is so much easier to appreciate the powder-keg waiting to explode. And, to understand the fatal mistake that Cassio makes. Officers do not go drinking with enlisted men. You cannot do that and expect to retain the authority which is essential to army discipline. If Cassio had had the years of experience that Iago has he would not have made such a basic mistake. Othello has no option but to demote him. Had he done otherwise military discipline would have fallen apart. It is this which Desdemona completely fails to recognise.
I feel really privileged to have had the opportunity to see both these productions, but more especially to have seen them in such close order. Not only did the one play inform the other in terms of understanding how central to life the army and the fight can become to those who have known nothing else but also in combination they forced me to think again about the nature of warfare, the role of Western nations in the foreign field and the implications for society of the integration of military and civilian life.