Rona Munro was a little girl when she first fell in love with history.
All those tales of kings and queens in castles besieged by invading
armies fired her imagination.Then later, on summer holidays in
Scotland, Munro would let that imagination run wild.
“I would be running round all these castles pretending I lived there,”
the Aberdeen born playwright says on the eve of the Edinburgh
International Festival's world premiere of The James Plays, her epic
trilogy of Scottish history plays. “That's just what this has been
like, being able to play like that.”
The James Plays is a cross-border co-production between EIF, the
National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Great Britain
that charts the lives and loves of James I, James II and James III, who
ruled Scotland in turn during the fifteenth century. In the first play,
subtitled The Key Will Keep The Lock, James I attempts to rule after
spending eighteen years in an English prison. James II: Day of The
Innocents is seen through the eyes of the boy who was crowned king aged
just eight years old. Finally, James III: The True Mirror focusses on
the feckless aesthete whose reign becomes a grand folly only saved by
his wife, Queen Margaret of Denmark.
“I'm a bit passionate about Scottish history,” says Munro, who studied
the subject at the University of Edinburgh, “and this is the periopd I
love the best. There's this glamorous, Game of Thrones thing going on,
with everyone going round wielding swords, and people's lives becoming
more epic, but there's not much known about the period, particularly in
As with the contemporary language used in the plasy, Munro cuts through
the political and inter-personal complexities of such a rich tapestry
to keep things alive for a modern audience.
“James I is very much about a man who wants to be a statesman, and a
moral one at that,” she explains. “James II is a child's nightmare of
what it's like to be king; and James III is about a man who doesn't
really want to be king at all."
While much of her work on stage and screen has been grittily
contemporary, The James Plays isn't the first time Munro has looked to
history for inspiration. Her last play for EIF, The Last Witch, seen in
2009, looked at the case of Janet Horne, the last woman ro be executed
for witchcraft in Scotland. A with that play, the women in the James
Plays are key to how things pan out.
“We know an awful lot less about the queens,” says Munro, “so it's a
case of chicken and egg. Do we know less because they did less, or is
it because there was less written about them because there was less
interest in them, so it's harder to find out about them?”
“We can be fairly confident that James I really was crazy about Joan.
In the second play, with Mary, at the point James II married her was
the point he stopped being a puppet and started to be his own king. I
like to think Mary provided the strength and support he needed to do
that. Queen Margaret is an accepted enough part of the Scottish scene,
but there are sytill things we don't know, so the plays are definitely
about the women as much as the men.”
One woman in particular, may well steal the show. The casting of Sofie
Gabrol, the star of Danish TV thriller, The Killing, as Queen Margaret,
has thrown an even bigger spotlight on the James Plays than it already
had. Not least, it seems, in the rehearsal room.
“Oh my God,” says Munro, sounding every inch the fan-girl. “Every time
I look at Sofie I have to do a double take. When she came in we'd
already been working on the plays for eight weeks, and everyone was
going slightly stir crazy, so we all had to try and keep it together
and not get star struck.”
Starstruck or not, Munro is relishing the opportunity to get stuck in
to such meaty material.
“When I was a kid,” she says, “and all the boys were playing
sword-fighting games on the street, I used to want to join in, but was
told I couldn't because I was a girl. Now on The James Plays, we've got
these two fight directors working on all these battle scenes, and
finally it feels like I can. We're big kids playing these games, only
now we've got to make them look real.”
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.
Rona Munro – A Life in Words
Rona Munro was born in 1959, and began her writing career at Edinburgh
In 1991, Munro was named as most promising playwright of the year for
For the Traverse, Munro has written Your Turn To Clean The Stair
(1992), which was the last play to be seen at the theatre's old
Grassmarket space; Iron (2002) and Strawberries In January (2006).
Munro has also written for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Hampstead,
Paines Plough and The Drum, Plymouth.
Since 1986, Munro has written and initially performed as one half of
feminist cabaret duo, The Msfits, with actress Fiona Knowles.
For television, Munro has written for Casualty, and penned the final
series of the original Dr Who in 1989.
For film, Munro wrote Ladybird Ladybird, which was directed by Ken
Loach, Rehab, directed by Antonia Bird, and for TV, the BAFTA nominated
Bumping The Odds.
The last Munro work to feature as part of Edinburgh International
Festival prior to The James Plays was The Last Witch, in co-production
with the Traverse Theatre in 2009.
The Herald, August 1st 2014