Sunday, 17 August 2014

The James Plays

James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars
The giant sword stabbed into the stage throughout this first part of
Rona Munro's trilogy of fifteenth century Scottish history plays looks
like a statement of intent, both in the ambition of Laurie Sansom's
production, and in the grandiloquent sweep of what follows the
rabble-rousing song that opens it. Here we find James I thrust back
into his kingdom after eighteen years in the shadow of a bullying Henry
V, who taunts and teases his captive, while James would rather defend
his note-book full of verse than lead a country into battle. Once a
dying Henry marries off James to his cousin Joan, however, he is forced
to becomes one of the lads, not just for his country's sake, but to
impress his girl the way any boy would.

With the stage surrounded by a bank of seats where a section of the
audience sit either side of James' throne, Sansom's production for the
National Theatre of Scotland, National Theatre of Great Britain and
Edinburgh International Festival brings Munro's mix of political
thriller and period romance to life with an epic panache and wit.
Public and private moments dovetail beautifully, with the goofy charm
of James and Joan's wedding offset by the dark machinations of the
Stewart clan.

James McArdle's James is a vulnerable figure who struggles to play the
tough guy when all he wants is for Stephanie Hyam's Joan to read his
poems. By the end, however, he's more than merely playing the king.

James II: Day of The Innocents
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars
If the first part of Rona Munro's trilogy of imagined history plays was
an adventure yarn in excelis, this second episode takes a more macabre
and psychologically subterranean turn as it explores the emotional
disturbances of James II following his turbulent succession to the
throne aged just six. The first half of Laurie Sansom's production, set
on the same bare stage as the first part, gets into  the boy king's
mind by way of a jumbled-up dreamscape of memory and imagining peopled
by the brutal court who killed his father and young William Douglas,
who he forms an alliance with. Here, James is personified all too
appropriately as a puppet, seeking sanctuary in a wooden box as the
world wages war on his legacy while a brooding electronic underscore
pulses around him.

The bromance that blossoms between James and an arguably even more
damaged and brutalised Will is only usurped when James finds his voice
by way of his French queen, Mary. The joie de vivre this gang of
teenagers find mucking about playing football gives way to a second
half driven by Will's increasing loose cannon status. It's here that
Andrew Rothney's James and Mark Rowley's Will fully get to let rip with
Munro's rich and furiously contemporary dialogue. The final rally
between the pair more resembles a pair of Glasgow gangsters falling out
than a monarch and his sidekick in a deadly display of wounded macho
pride that stabs you in the heart.

James III: The True Mirror
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Five stars
A choreographed ceilidh playing contemporary pop songs ushers in the
third and final part of Rona Munro’s mighty trilogy of history-based
but thoroughly of the moment epics. Munro's James III is played here by
Jamie Sives as a flamboyant, leather-kilted libertine, who's so vain he
has a hooded choir follow-him about singing his praises while he swirls
flowers around like a fully deified Morrissey.

It is left to his Danish Queen Margaret to keep house, home and
eventually country too together, with Sofie Grabol giving a magnificent
turn as the increasingly emancipated matriarch. Through her, her
coterie of gal pals and the mirror gifted her by the estranged king
there is a magnificent study of the meaning of physical beauty as the
king's teenage mistress is humiliated into action of her own. It is
this mix of the intimate and the epic that powers Munro's writing, and,
as with the first two plays, it is the women on the throne who shape
destiny. This isn't just the case when Margaret tames parliament after
James' outrage-courting departure, but when Blythe Duff's Annabella
tenderly dresses a self-lacerating Jame IV with hand-me-downs steeped
in meaning for his coronation.

Every one of Munro and Sansom's heroic cast of twenty should be proud
of what they have achieved with all three plays, best seen in one
lengthy but exhilarating sitting. By the end, it's clear that something
very special just happened. It might just have been the future.

The Herald, August 11th 2014


ends

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