Monday, 8 February 2016

The James Plays

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Four stars

There's never any peace in Rona Munro's epic trilogy of imagined Scottish history, revived for a brief Edinburgh run following its 2014 Edinburgh International Festival premiere before embarking on an international tour. This is plain to see on both a sweeping political level as well as something more intimate in all three parts of this co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland, the National Theatre of Great Britain and EIF itself.

The fact that the first all-dayer coincided with the kick-off of the Six Nations Rugby Union tournament may have been coincidental, but a similar sense of hand-me-down tribalism was inherent from the off in James I: The Key will Keep the Lock. With a section of the audience seated on a semi-circular platform onstage, a gladiatorial arena flanks a giant sword embedded into a floor on which the pathways of light form a Saltire.

With Steven Miller playing a poetry-loving James I, Andrew Rothney an emotionally damaged James II and Matthew Pidgeon a feckless James III, all three monarchs have their demons to slay, and it is their female counterparts they look to for inspiration as much as comfort.

As James is gifted back to his people after eighteen years in an English prison, the only reason he toughens up is to impress his queen Joan, played by Rosemary Boyle, who ingeniously segues into James II's French bride Mary in the second play. Blythe Duff's increasingly demonic Isabella Stewart, too, is an over-riding influence, while Malin Crepin's Queen Margaret in the third play is savvy enough to recognise her image as others see her while offering others a form of liberation as well.

As the most stylistically adventurous part of the trilogy, James II: Day of the Innocents is also the one that has been reworked the most. Where the psychologically traumatised six year old boy-king was previously personified by a puppet, now Rothney plays James throughout, leaping in and out of boxes as he goes.

The play now appears more direct if just as insular in its portrayal of James' nightmares. Even more dysfunctional is Andrew Still's William Douglas, a loose cannon desperate to prove he's a tough guy in a bromance that increasingly resembles a contemporary gangland tragedy.

The energy of a younger generation rebelling against their bullying elders is paramount here, to the extent that Rothney came a cropper during the second act football match. While he heroically continued to the end of the play, David Mara took on his roles script-in-hand in the trilogy's third part.

James III: The True Mirror presents a seemingly more civilised and thoroughly modern society in the
most subtle, considered and quietly powerful of the three plays. The end, as the next generation in the form of Daniel Cahill's future James IV tries on for size the baggage of his forebears almighty mistakes, feels less certain than first time round. As James steps out to face the future, however, the possibilities are endless.

The Herald, February 8th 2016

ends

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