The James Plays

Reviewer's Rating

A gigantic sword pierces the stage in each of the three instalments that form The James Plays series. However, thesword’s appearance varies in each of the segments, taking on the characteristics of the individual narratives. The sword’s purpose seems to alter throughout the trilogy: it is a sword that attacks, protects, a statement of justice and of barbarism, and perhaps more than these, it is a heavy weight balanced upon a small point, waiting to topple at any moment, a hint at the instability that pulsates beneath the surface during this period of history.

In a new leap, the National Theatre (London) and the National Theatre of Scotland have collaborated to produce Rona Munro’s trilogy, directed by Laurie Sansom. The plays debut at the Edinburgh International Festival, before transferring to the National Theatre, London, in September. The trilogy follows a period of Scottish history beginning in the early 15th Century, with James I living in exile in England, and ends at the close of the same century, as James IV ascends to the throne. Nearly 70 years are skilfully condensed into the three plays, with Munro acknowledging alteration and amalgamation of historical figures for dramatic effect. Whilst the plays can be viewed in isolation, the unity between the three is delightful, as themes and motifs appear to reverberate through Scottish history. Perhaps most enjoyable is Munro’s skill in making the plays so relevant for a modern audience; arguments regarding Scottish independence, the unpredictable weather and impression of royalty are highly resonant, yet refreshing when presented from this archaic angle.

James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock is undoubtedly the best of the three. It is a play about hierarchy and leadership, and is incredibly rousing. Henry V, explored so poignantly in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy is here sidelined, and the spotlight is placed (quite literally) on James, his captive, who is later reinstated as the rightful King of Scotland. James McArdle, as James I, captures the uncertainty and hesitancy of the young king, and formed an interesting contrast to Blythe Duff’s fiery, dominant portrayal of Isabella, and Stephanie Hyam’s naïve, endearing Joan. The stage, a circular wooden arena, suggests at the entertainment to be found in the violence- “Royalty has a natural instinct for battle” it is commented. This play captures an energy for life and a bravery in the face of death which is infectious, and seems to be the driving force of the drama.

The weakest of the triptych, James II: Days of the Innocents, follows the manipulation of a young king, crowned at just eight years old, by the various members of the Scottish court. James II, played by Andrew Rothney, or “the wee king” is represented for the majority of the play by a puppet. The highly skilled puppeteer work provides an interesting visual, illustrating how a young monarch might be mastered and manipulated by his elders, however it did become a little fussy after a time. Stephanie Hyam does a particularly commendable job as both Joan, James’ mother, and later his wife Mary. This segment lacked the emotional depth the others boast, but was by no means a disappointment.

Finally, James III: The True Mirror, starring Jamie Sives as James III and Sofie Gråbøl as Queen Margaret, involves a conscious effort to ‘update’ the drama visually, which somewhat puts the whole production in limbo. Costumes are an amalgamation of the 15th Century and the modern, and the pop songs are jarring. It is certainly possible to see why these artistic decisions were made- this segment is the most relatable, exploring themes from marital separation and the divisions that ensue, to a hilarious scene involving a wine tasting- but personally I did not think it was successful. However, this play most resembles Marlowe’s Edward II, both thematically, and in its spirit, which makes it particularly enjoyable. Further, this third does contain what is possibly the standout moment of the entire trilogy: Queen Margaret’s final speech. Inspired by the mirror she has been gifted by her husband, the monologue becomes a direct address to the audience (at this point the house lights are defiantly brought up), which is poignant and moving. During the address, superbly delivered by Gråbøl, Munro calls out to her audience from centuries past and in a moment of pure genius part-asks and part-laments, “Who would want the job of ruling Scotland?” However, whether this reflective speech will transfer with the same spirit to a London audience is questionable.

In conclusion, as the hours of theatre speed by and the various actors stamp their story out over the suggestion of the Scottish flag lit so subtly onto the acting space, a sense of the rhythms of Scottish history are beaten out (and despite the small faults identifiable in each of the plays) one cannot help becoming caught up in the action… and even tap a foot along too.