Sunday, 3 August 2014

Laurie Sansom - The James Plays

Succession is never easy. Just ask Laurie Sansom, who took over as
artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland in 2013 after his
predecessor and the company's founding director Vicky Featherstone left
to take over the Royal Court in London. When Sansom's appointment was
made in 2012, questions were raised in some quarters regarding his
appropriateness for the job.

This appeared to have little to do with the Kent-born director's
experience, both in the rehearsal room directing more than twenty new
plays as a a trainee director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the
Round in Scarborough, or else running the Royal and Derngate Theatre in
Northampton for six years. This included a hit production of the stage
adaptation of Muriel Spark's Edinburgh-set novel, The Prime of Miss
Jean Brodie, which played throughout the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in
2009.

Despite such a pedigree, Sansom was seen by some to be the latest in a
long line of senior arts posts who came from outside Scotland.
Featherstone and her associate director John Tiffany had faced similar
criticisms, despite respectively commissioning and directing Black
Watch, Gregory Burke's dramatic investigation of life during and after
wartime for the Fife-based regiment. Black Watch toured the world, and
arguably changed Scottish theatre forever. While emanating from a
minority, some comments had been bruising.

Sansom remained quietly diplomatic in his response, and the comments
died down as he got on with the job he was hired to do. Now, however,
after developing his programme behind the scenes for fifteen months, he
is about to break cover with what is probably the biggest show of his
career so far.

The James Plays is a trilogy of brand new history plays by Rona Munro
which focus on the lives and loves of three generations of fifteenth
century Scottish kings. With a cast of eighteen featuring Blythe Duff
and, in something of a coup, star of Danish TV drama The Killing, Sofie
Gabrol, as Queen Margaret in the third play, The James Plays were
inherited by Sansom from Featherstone, who commissioned them.

It was Sansom, however, who brokered  this ambitious co-production
between the National Theatre of Scotland and the seemingly newly
christened National Theatre of Great Britain to become what is now the
flagship of this year's Edinburgh International Festival theatre
programme. While by no means referendum plays, the James Plays
appearance in the Scottish Government's Homecoming year will
nevertheless be seen as significant. For Sansom, however, it was never
a done deal.

“The first artist I met when I first came up for my initial
acclimatisation with the company for a couple of weeks was Rona,”
Sansom says of his introduction to The James Plays. “She was finishing
off the first draft of the plays, and we talked about them. They
sounded fascinating, and right up my street as a director, but I also
knew that, when they arrived on the table - the company had already
invested quite a lot of money, and Rona had invested a huge amount of
her time – and your heart kind of sinks a little when these three huge
scripts on your desk, because you're just thinking 'please let them be
good'.”

As soon as Sansom started reading them, however, he was smitten.

“I was thrilled by their contemporary feel, the lyricism and the
theatrical possibilities,” he says. “By the time I'd got to end of the
first act of James I, which is an extraordinary piece of writing, I
knew the company had to do them this year. By the time I'd finished all
three of them, I thought that if I could do anything, it was to try and
get them on together with the same company in the same year.”

Sansom has spent the last year developing the plays with Munro,
workshopping them with actors inbetween forming alliances, first with
EIF, then with the NT, where the production will transfer after
Edinburgh. Talking on a late afternoon lunch break from technical
rehearsals in Birmingham after what has been an epic fourteen week
rehearsal period, Sansom appears remarkably fresh and stress-free.

He may of course be bluffing, because, like it or not, The James Plays
will be Sansom's calling card for his tenure at the NTS. Whatever
happens later, for a while, at least, he will be defined by it. The
production will be under extra scrutiny, and not just by critics of his
appointment. There is the fact too that the NTS hasn't always fared
well in its EIF productions. Yet, despite the timing and high profile
of The James Plays, Sansom maintains that there has been no political
interference from outside.

“If I thought there was any reason for doing these three plays other
than the fact that they're brilliant pieces of writing,” Sansom says,
“I'd be very scared right now. It could look like we're ticking boxes,
but theses are the best new plays I've read for a very long time, so I
don't feel that pressure, and I haven't felt like it's been hijacked in
any way.  The only pressure I feel is to do the plays justice.”

Neither does Sansom deny that the moment is right for The James Plays.

“If you tell a story about a king,” he says, “you're simultaneously
telling a story about an individual and a nation, and theatre is
arguably the best artform for looking at the psychology and the
decision-making of an individual in a wider social and historical
context. So to be looking at this period of largely unknown Scottish
history in 2014, when the nation is looking at itself and wondering
what kind of country it is and what it could be, is clearly such an
exciting opportunity to reflect on cultural identity. With everything
that's going on this year, it was too alluring not to do it.”


James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock, James II: Day of The Innocents
and James III: The True Mirror, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh; all three
plays can be seen on the same day on Aug 10, 16, 17 and 20 at 12 noon,
4pm and 8.15pm; James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock (only), Aug 5
(preview), 12 and 19, 7.30pm; James II: Day of The Innocents (only),
Aug 7 (preview), 13 and 21, 7.30pm; James III: The True Mirror (only),
Aug 9 (preview), 14, 15 and 22, 7.30pm.
www.eif.co.uk

The Herald, August 2nd 2014


ends

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