Rona Munro’s trilogy, The James Plays, received wide critical acclaim in both Edinburgh and London during 2014. Now the plays, taking an epic look of three of Scotland’s Kings, is touring, visiting Australia, New Zealand and Canada as well as extensive UK dates.
Peter Forbes, was in the original company in 2014 and reprised his role as Balvenie for the new production. He spoke to Glen Pearce about the trilogy, the challenges of tackling such an epic production and the importance of capturing Scottish history.
You appeared in the original 2014 production and you are now back for the international tour. Has much changed since the original production?
We have had some major changes in the second play, where the first half has changed quite a lot. We still tell the same story of the childhood of James II, but the whole thing is couched as a nightmares sequence of James, remembering his childhood as a young man.
In the original production, we had a puppet as a young James and the older James witnessing what he had experienced through that puppet. Some people loved it, but a lot of people found it difficult to identify with the young James directly, and so Rona Munro [the playwright] and Laurie Sansom [the director] decided to try a different approach. The puppet was the only original cast member who wasn’t invited back. The puppetry itself was terrific, but it just was a bit too much to sustain for the first 40 minutes or so of the play.
The other changes were just in casting, as some people weren’t available. We’ve got about half of the original cast and about half new, which has been very interesting. As soon as you replace people in a company that has an ensemble like this it slightly changes the dynamic. That’s been good, as I think it’s helped to freshen it up and we’ve all come to it with a fresh eye.
You mention the show has changed and been re-rehearsed – what’s the process like for rehearsing not one, but three plays at once.
It is difficult enough with one play, but these are all big plays, three big epic plays. It’s been very interesting revisiting them because when we first did them they were evolving as we went along. Things get rewritten and changed but your focus is on just making the plays and getting them up. Now with a year’s hindsight, we’re able to look at them again and actually question some of the decisions that we made as actors the first time around. It’s not often you get to revisit something.
Because you’re doing three at once there’s an element of jigsaw about it, where from day to day you’re working on different bits of different plays. It’s more akin to the way you work in filming, where you often shoot scenes completely out of sequence.
The character that you play rises through the ranks in James I and then perhaps comes into his own in James II. Is it nice to have that big story arc over two plays in which to explore a character?
It’s fantastic and one of the things I really love about the role. There are only three characters from the first play who actually survive into a second. My character Balvenie, who is one of the Douglas family, is one of those survivors and has probably the biggest change in terms of his character from James I into James II. You really see in the second play the consequences of what’s happened to him in the first play. The abuse that he suffered in the first play colours his character in the second play and you see a much darker side to him and it’s great to be able to do it across two plays. I feel slightly cheated when we do the plays on their own and if we just do James I without James II, I feel I’ve only told half of Balvenie’s story, whereas when we do I, II and III in a day, as we will be doing on most of the touring venues, it’s great to feel that you can play a really long narrative arc and a character arc.
That evolution of the story is fascinating to play over a day. I think I’ve likened it to sitting down and watching a box set of a television series like Game of Thrones, where it where it unfolds over a long period of time and you become really immersed in it.
Do you think to a certain extent, although Game of Thrones is fiction, that sort of historical epic have reignited interest in the stage histories?
I think these things go in phase and, as audiences, we become fascinated by modern stories for a while and then we want to delve a bit more into the past with period dramas like Downton Abbey. I think people are always fascinated by old stories, about where we’ve come from. That’s why Shakespeare’s History Plays are still performed regularly. Because, for an English audience, they really tap into that.
So do you see this as Scotland’s equivalent of the History Plays?
I think that’s partly what Rona was trying to provide for Scottish audiences – a sense of historical drama in the theatre because we didn’t have a Shakespeare. In Scotland there is a very rich vein of poetry and novels, but not so much of the wealth of older plays, the quality of Shakespeare. Rona was inspired to write because she went to see The RSC doing the whole history cycle a few years ago and thought ‘wow, it’s amazing to see the whole thing.
I think audiences like to engage with those sort of stories because they have a sort of elemental quality to them and what they remind you of is the fact that the world has changed but human behaviour and human psychology really is the same as it always was
You mention that Rona wrote the piece as a response to the English history plays. You’re now taking the show to Australia then returning for a large UK tour before taking the show to Canada. Do you sense a different reaction from non-Scottish audiences?
For non-Scots, I’m sure there will be a difference but Australia, New Zealand and particularly Canada, are all countries with a lot of the Scots diaspora living there, so I think would be a lot of people with a fascination for the history anyway.
When we did them originally in 2014 it was around the time of the referendum on Scottish independence, we opened in Edinburgh before the referendum and we went to London and it was while we were in London that the referendum took place. So people focussed very much on the whole notion of nationhood and what that meant for Scotland. There are key speeches in the play about that, how does Scotland govern itself? What is Scotland? What is the nature of Scotland? It was obviously very topical at the time and it will be interesting to see a couple of years on how audiences will see it.
So is it important to be able to capture this period of Scottish history on stage?
It’s very exciting to be part of a National Theatre Company taking part of that nation’s story abroad. Even within Scotland, a lot of people don’t really know anything about James I, II and III. If you say James I, most assume you mean James XI and I, who was the sixth of Scotland and first of England
You’ve already touched upon how the trilogy days are full of energy and get you through, but how do you approach having to do eight hours of drama in one go?
It’s a marathon but what we’ve all found is the way to do it is to focus on the thing you’re doing at that moment. I think the key to it really, in terms of the stamina of getting through it, is just to play one thing at a time and not think about where it’s heading. That actually gives the performance a real sense of being in the present. I think that’s a huge payoff for us in terms of the playing of it, but also for the audience.
Our first performance is usually at 12 o’clock on trilogy days but we were in the theatre from about 10 o’clock, doing physical warm-ups, vocal warm-ups and fight calls. So there’s a lot of preparation before you actually get on stage and that focuses everybody and it’s a really strong ensemble.
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