The James Plays
National Theatre of Scotland, National Theatre of Great Britain, Edinburgh International Festival
This production is equivalent to the best that British theatre has to offer and a welcome addition to Sheffield Theatres’ predominant interest in musicals, whether home grown or touring, which are clearly popular with the local audience, put bums on seats and subsidise less popular work like the annual focus on contemporary playwrights. This is a production that is challenging and informative as well as being a theatrical tour de force.
What is so exciting is that plangent unaccompanied singing, rhythmic drumming and brilliantly choreographed fight and action scenes are the way in to Rona Munro’s simplification of a complicated period in early Scottish history, when the uncertain and usually very young kings have to learn how to deal with the powerful clan leaders and somehow survive.
In James I, Steven Miller gives an impressively muted performance in the early scenes, a young man taken hostage as a child, forced to live in isolation for 16 years, a reader, a poet, well informed about Scottish law, who thinks his violent Stewart relatives can be tamed through argument. In an impressive coronation scene, he persuades his relatives to kneel before him, not because he is King, but because he represents loyalty to Scotland.
Later, when he realises that his rough bunch of relatives will not conform to the rule of law, he reverts to a conversation he had with the dying Henry V about the nature of kingship and orders a huge pogrom of the Stewart clan. So, the quiet man becomes a ruthless executioner.
After the excitement and action of James I, James II is a much more reflective piece. Here Monro explores the effect on children who are pawns in the political game. James II is traumatised after a witnessing the bloody aftermath of his father’s murder and by being dragged away from his family to live under a Protector.
He finds comfort by hiding away in a ‘kist’ or large chest, where he is usually undiscovered and safe, and befriended by William Douglas, the son of a weak noble, enriched and ennobled by James I. Again, a usually gentle man becomes goaded into violent action. Andrew Rothney gives an excellent performance as James II as does Andrew Still as William Douglas in a nail-biting conclusion to the second play.
The treatment of women in these plays is also interesting. Most young women of any significance are affianced to men they have never met and carted off at an early age to foreign courts. Joan, an English noblewoman, finds Scotland unbearable, and is horrified when her marriage night has to be observed by group of drunken Scots Lairds. "Make it quick," she says. James II’s sister Annabelle is carried off to France but returned later when the proposed bridegroom shows no interest. Return to sender!
The exception to this is Isabella, wife of the Regent in the first play, powerfully performed by Blythe Duff. She is a dominant political woman of strength, whose three sons and husband are executed for treason and spends the rest of the play like a sibyl in a jar, watching and commentating bitterly on the action.
While the two earlier kings have had to play a complicated political game and ultimately resort to violence to hold the throne, James III, in an outstanding performance by Matthew Pidgeon, shrugs off his responsibilities, milks the state coffers to fund indulgent pleasures and projects, alienates the Lords in Parliament, banishes his brother and blocks his eldest son’s right to the succession. Remarkably, his Danish wife Margaret (Malin Crepin) remains loyal to him and rules in his stead for a short period until her death. As the third play ends, civil war looms.
Every member of this cast plays with assurance, intelligence and conviction, and it is a particular pleasure in watching the whole trilogy to see actors who have established themselves as strong characters in the first play returning in completely contrasting roles in the later ones.
Most notable in this respect are Ali Craig, who transforms himself from a violent roughneck in the first play to the statesman-like John in the last, and Andrew Still, an ambitious and barely controlled William Douglas in the second who gives a moving performance as the confused and initially sensitive young Ross in James III.
The trilogy continues to tour until mid-June and will, I’m sure, continue to delight audiences who see it. Not to be missed.
Reviewer: Velda Harris