'We will leave when we win,' says Siward the English general defiantly as the occupation of Scotland, designed to bring the lawless country quickly to peace, stretches on with no end in sight. David Greig's brilliant play, first seen very briefly in London at the Hampstead Theatre early last year, is now more topical than ever as generals and politicians ponder how to bring troops home from Afghanistan without allowing it to look like a defeat. When I first saw it I said it deserved to become a classic, and I see no reason to change that view; revived by the National Theatre of Scotland at the Lyceum in Edinburgh and elsewhere, it's now running at the rebuilt Swan theatre in Stratford, luckily with the same actors in most of the key parts. Siobhan Redmond and Jonny Phillips form an extraordinarily powerful couple as the widowed queen Gruach and the English general, whose devotion to 'peace' leads him to burn families alive. As he stands with his sword poised to slaughter the baby who appears to be the heir to the Scottish throne, Gruach tells him: ' You're a good man, Siward. It would have been better if you weren't. There would have been much less blood.' There is also a finely honed performance by Brian Ferguson as the cynical, manipulative king Malcolm, installed by the English as the new legitimate monarch. This trio of actors are even better than when I saw them the first time around in February 2010, and there's an equally assured performance by Alex Mann as Egham, the English knight for whom occupation is less of a noble cause and more of a business.
I think this is probably the best new play the Royal Shakespeare Company has staged in years, and it's a pity it hasn't had the chance of a West End run. Redmond in particular gives a truly Shakespearean performance that would be worthy of an Olivier. To say its political theme is topical does it a disservice; this is a play whose theme -- the perils of military occupation -- will never go out of date. It should be required viewing for anyone involved in the current Afghan campaign and the conflict in Libya. When the dictator is removed, that's the moment when the real insoluble problems start. David Greig's use of the familiar story of Macbeth as a platform on which to build his play is highly astute, but it's the quality of the dialogue, plot and characterisation and Roxana Silbert's direction of the cast, using a simple Shakespearean style and highly atmospheric music, which turns the production into a triumph. Go and see it!