The James Plays
James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock 4 stars ****
James II: Day Of The Innocents 3 stars ***
James III: The True Mirror 4 stars ****
FOR THE HUGE theatrical event that is the launch of The James Plays – the most ambitious project ever undertaken by the National Theatre Of Scotland, and its first-ever co-production with the National Theatre in London – the auditorium at the Festival Theatre has been turned into a giant arena, with part of the packed audience sitting in tiers behind the stage. Close to centre-stage, in John Bausor’s design, stands a mighty sword many metres high, its blade half-buried in the ground; and it’s with a classic play about kingship, and the threat of violence that inevitably underpinned mediaeval kingly power, that the action begins, in Rona Munro’s hugely ambitious trilogy about the reigns of James I, James II and James III.
It’s not Shakespeare’s Henry IV, with its mighty poetry, and profound political commitment to the ideal of monarchy; but James I is a well-crafted, fast-moving and intelligent drama about a young king who spent 20 years in prison in England, and who returns to Scotland, in his late twenties, to try to forge his country into a modern state. The story of young James’s return, his marriage, and his mighty struggle to assert his authority, is told with fluency and energy, touching on differing Scottish and English attitudes to kingship, as well as on the traditional unruliness of the great Scottish families.
At the centre of the story stand a group of memorable characters, from James McArdle’s powerful and moving young King – a poet compelled to take up the sword – to his English wife Joan, their servant Meg, and the terrifying matriarch of the rebellious Murdoch Stewart clan, played with flair and cruelty by the great Blythe Duff. And the play is supported from the outset by Laurie Sansom’s hugely impressive and brilliantly choreographed production, in which an ensemble cast of 20 swirl across the stage, evoking banquets and battles, wedding-nights and sessions of parliament, in a tense and gripping pageant of essential Scottish history.
If there are cheers at the end of James I, though, things take a more difficult turn in the first act of James II, a murky dream-play built around the recurring nightmares of the young King James II, crowned king at the age of six following his father’s brutal assassination. Often played by a ghost-like child puppet, as well as by an impressive Andrew Rothney, this king seems close to madness; but he survives to marry a brave young French queen played by a sweet and witty Stephanie Hyam. James II, though, seems like a play that never quite finds its centre; whether it lies in James’s battle with his own nightmares, in the growing rebellion of the Douglas clan, or – as the final scenes suggest – in the tragedy of James’s adoring friend William Douglas, bullied son and frustrated lover, played by Mark Rowley with a text-gulping intensity that commands attention, but does not fully repay it.
And then, with a final shift of style, it’s on to James III, a historic tragi-comedy in the deliberately anachronistic style pioneered by plays like The Lion In Winter, and completely dominated by Sofie Grabol’s terrific, commanding performance as Margaret of Denmark, wife to Jamie Sives’s terrifyingly mercurial and unpredictable James III. This James is a bisexual joker who dislikes the labour of kingship so much that he actively wishes England would invade and take over; while his queen pores over the national accounts, and conducts the business of government. Set in a time of relative plenty, James III features touches of modern dress, and plenty of cheerful partying between scenes. Without the steely, witty seriousness of Grabol’s central performance, though, its relentless anachronisms and deliberately crude language would become a shade wearying, long before this eight-hour theatrical marathon reaches its end.
So what does it all amount to, this mighty trilogy in which so much time, cash and hope has been invested? On one hand, it offers an impressive vindication of the directing skills of the National Theatre of Scotland’s artistic director, Laurie Sansom. This is the first show he has staged himself, since he took on the huge task of running Scotland’s national theatre-without-walls, and the fluency and intelligence with which he drives his huge cast through these three very different stories is as formidable as it is entertaining.
The plays, though, are a mixed achievement, full of interesting incidents and insights – and with a commendable emphasis on the women of the royal household – but often depressingly flat and banal in language, written in a version of crude, everyday street Scots that provokes endless easy laughs from the audience, so incongruous does it seems.
And for the politics of the James Plays, in the run-up to 18 September – well, they sometimes grasp the central truth that relations with England always dominate Scotland’s fate; and there is a final plea for courage, in the face of an unknowable future. From the outset, though, the plays are full of the kinds of patronising cliches about Scotland that some hoped, a generation ago, never to see on Scottish stages again; all that predictable nonsense about how Scotland is cold, and barren, and very small, a place with no apple trees, swathed in smoky darkness, and, above all, uniquely rough, violent and ungovernable – this in plays set at a time when England itself was riven by murderous civil war.
And if you want to understand why Scotland is likely to vote “no” on 18 September, then all you need do is listen to the obliging laughter with which the Festival audience responds to every one of these old chestnuts, and to Queen Margaret’s amazing final assertion that Scotland is a nation with “f**k all except attitude.” Scotland, it seems, is a nation still willing to see itself mainly through the eyes of contemptuous others; and for all its ambition, and the sheer brilliance of its staging, the James Trilogy never achieves the levels of vision and coherence that might begin to change all that.