“Forwakit and forwalowit, thus musing, Wery forlyin, I lestnyt sodaynly” Kingis Quair, attributed to James I
Prepare for a marathon of a review fit only for the thrilling marathon of plays running at the Festival Theatre from the 3rd to the 13th February. The National Theatre of Scotland presents an exciting new production of the world famous ‘The James Plays’ written by the talented Rona Munro. This triple bill of full length plays, written to be viewed consecutively (as an ‘epic’ piece of theatre) but equally strong alone, provide Munro’s creative and clear interpretation of Scotland’s murky past in the years 1400-1500. This part of history is not very well documented and so it must be noted that Munro’s portrayal has taken many artistic licenses in order to form a coherent storyline with some added characters that were thus able to reappear in the different plays.
Each play follows a different King James of Scotland: James I (1406-1437), James II (1437-1460) and James III (1460-1488). They each have very clear themes: James I explores relationships, James II explores power and childhood influences and James III returns to exploring relationships and the superficiality of power (thus combining the two previous themes). There is also clearly an emphasis on the effects of missed opportunities across the three plays and in an overarching theme the effect the rule of each James’s previous father had on their own reign. Having viewed all three plays in one sitting it is easier to appreciate the continuous thread of narrative Munro weaves into the James plays, as well as the effort from the production team to both compare and distinguish each play from each other.
The set, for example, is an incredible creation that links all three plays together. With the main piece remaining the same for all three (a looming solid gladiator style stand circling the stage, creating a combat ring for the plays to be performed) small details set each play. In the second play (James II) a darker lighting design illustrates the darker nature of the play whilst the addition of roses and a brighter lighting design brings to life the more trivial final play. All the seamless scene changes are performed by the numerous cast in smooth quick transitions often accompanied by the haunting singing of a male and female cast member that sum up key points or sing child rhymes. The lighting is fantastically perfect, with the centrepiece being the combination of set and tech in the form of a giant sword rising from the stage which occasionally is set on fire.
Reusing the cast across all three plays means the audience gets the opportunity to see the talented company act in various characters across the trio. Worth a particular mention are the three James’s, Steven Miller (James I), Andrew Rothney (James II) and Matthew Pidgeon (James III), and Blythe Duff who appears as prominent characters throughout all three. Rothney was particularly incredible during James II (on Saturday 6th February) due to the fact unfortunately half way through the performance he suffered a painful injury to his ankle. Despite this he finished the remaining hour of the show with only a slight visible limp to his person (he managed to incorporate this into his character), and although it was noticeable that the play became a lot more wordy – there was clearly some areas where a fight scene might have broken out – the pain he suffered to finish his performance to such a high standard was astonishing. At the bows he was unable to place any weight on the ankle and was subsequently taken to hospital and thus unable to perform in the James III. Following an announcement at the beginning of James III by director Laurie Sansom one of the ensemble members took the script to perform Rothney’s role of Cochrane. It is a testament to the company’s professionalism that one of their members was able to make the audience forget the script and assume the persona of a character they have not spent months rehearsing. Duff was exceptional as a strong recurring female character (Isabella Stewart and Annabella) bringing a strong, older, experienced presence to the stage, often reviving any dip in performance with her clear, funny, often sarcastic speeches.
James I was, by far, the most polished play – both in terms of performance and script. Munro clearly establishes the route the play is taking – exploring the effects relationships can have on people’s actions. One of the key relationships in this play is the one between James I and his wife Joan of England (Rosemary Boyle). Although often overly simplifying and romanticising history – for instance attributing the majority of James I’s bloody actions to the love of his wife – it must be kept in mind that Munro has taken artistic license when writing the plays. Reducing these crueller aspects of James’s reign to acts of love gives Miller’s character a warmth that would have been difficult to find otherwise and helps the audience emphasise with his situation. As is always the case when dealing with history it can be difficult to think of historical figures as human people and Munro tries extremely hard to humanise these figures and give them understandable motives that the audience can relate to. James I is definitely above the others in terms of character development and Munro seems to have put more thought into each character’s personality and backstory, incorporating many flashbacks, which introduce them to the audience. Having seen all three in one day it is easier to imagine James I being a standalone play compared to James III for example. The company has managed to wring the best out of Munro’s wickedly sharp script and it is an ease to watch, the action unfolds and displays itself to the audience for their enjoyment. The final thing to mention is that Munro never follows the whole of the King James’s rule – she writes of a period of struggle in their reign but always concludes with them in a stable situation (allowing each play a degree of relief and a semi-content ending).
James II was as enthralling as its predecessor but in a different way. A far darker, more psychological, look at the next James’s reign Munro explores childhood influences and how they leave lasting effects on men’s lives and personalities. Rothney reprises the role he first performed in 2014 and it is easy to see why Sansom recast him in this leading role. Setting aside his incredible endurance through the pain of his ankle injury, Rothney had an incredible control over his character and was an almost overwhelming presence on the stage. He has a remarkable power in his performance, a manic joyous energy that is partly created by Munro’s completely distinct characterisation of the King and also by Sansom’s expert direction. With James II’s turbulent childhood – becoming a puppet king to the loathsome, greedy Livingston. Livingston was played by the wonderful John Stahl and was the one thing that sat oddly – his direction from Sansom appeared to be that of a camp but villainous man which just did not seem quite comfortable on stage. Rosemary Doyle appeared again (as Joan at the beginning) but also as Mary, James’s endearing French wife, and the relationship between the two was well established and realistically sweet. However this time Munro, although using the husband-wife relationship for various plot twists, turns her attention to that of childhood friends and how equally scarring incidences in childhood (abusive father v. psychological misgivings) can lead to choices being made on whether to take one’s place in society or to stride out alone. Andrew Still excels as William Douglas, King’s friend turned opponent, whose joyful personality is corrupted and sours as he becomes unable to accept with whom the power lies and his lot in life. A far darker play one of the cleverest additions was the appearance of the character Isabella Stewart (Duff) who almost narrates parts of James II from her vantage point in her prison cell where she was locked by James I. These little snippets of continuation from the previous play helps create the ‘epic’ Munro hoped to achieve from the creation of this trilogy.
James III was the weakest of the plays. Compared to the other’s expert and impressive character development and plot progression it felt all the more one-dimensional. The acting was still of a high calibre but the characterisation was more disappointing; it felt like the actors were less comfortable in their personalities (bar Matthew Pidgeon who was fantastic as James although limited by where the script was taking him). It did not help that there seemed to be a slight political agenda to the script which personally was a little affronting. Working to a climax at the end where Margaret, Queen of Scots speech (Malin Crepin – excellent actress and sound portrayal) which seemed to be a chance for Munro to write a speech about the power of Scotland, her beauty and independence, and how at this moment in time she is unsure where she is heading. Given that the first plays were performed in 2014 before the referendum it is unsurprising that there was a political injection to the script as one is influenced by current events, even subconsciously. However the ending of James III felt a little under rehearsed, and the script a little less solid, as it appears there were alterations made to make it less of a rousing speech for Scotland’s autonomy and more of a speech for strong government in that period. Exploring power it looks at the way monarchs could abuse what they witness as a birth right – James III sees it as a blessing due to him whilst his father saw it as a curse to begin with. It also explores the negative effects of relationships – James III sees his son as a threat to his power instead of someone to love and influence.
To conclude, this production of the James Plays is a credit to the National Theatre Company and to the talented script of Rona Munro. It was fascinating to identify the overarching themes that she has woven into all three plays and how through the period of three years Munro deals with similar issues through three very different characters. Although the third needs further work to bring it up to the same level as the first two it is also of a high calibre. Honestly I have not witnessed anything as professional, both intimidating in quality and astonishing in its remarkable performances, performed in Scotland and it is at the same level of production as those on the West End such as War Horse. It is both an education in the power of a script and the possibilities of stage, and I could not recommend catching them, even one if you can, enough.