Writer: Rona Munro
Director: Laurie Sansom
It can be a King’s folly, a Queen’s sentence, and the Rabble’s making.
But it extends, not only in character, but with the playwright, and the decision to move beyond the initial triptych James plays is a bold one. Celebrated Scottish writer Rona Munro continues to place embedded history within contemporary awareness. Munro’s James IV: Queen of the Fighttakes initial delicacy with its commentary comparison to her earlier productions, even those out with the James trilogy.
1473 – 1513. This is the lineage of King James IV, but Munro’s tale condenses much into the span of a few years, focusing on 1504 – 1512. Staged in a rounded wooden crucible to reflect inward the emotional turmoil Jon Bausor’s design is a fine piece – neither robbing glory nor fading. Its muted tone offers an additional benefit – one which highlights the brilliance in Bausor’s costume as gaudy chic thunders with period clothing. And draped in this finer is the always pleasantly humorous, purposeful, and only a touch vindictive, Blyth Duff.
This nonchalant King, played by Daniel Cahill, still retains a sense of grim understanding at James IV’s delicate place with the persistent eyes of Europe upon him. Far more approachable than his predecessors, this Scottish Stewart is among the more appealing of his kin. But he isn’t the protagonist of this production, even given the titular namesake. No, King James IV is a side character to two women deserting Plague-torn Bilbao. Two real, historical women who find themselves in Scotland: who need to find favour to remain within the royal court.
Carrying a sense of authority before even arriving at court, Anne is performed by the regally competent and fierce Laura Lovemore, whose presence uplifts the production from the onset. A Moorish attendant to the Queen, Lovemore has a remarkable ability to remain outside of another’s shadow – even when playing a more subservient or quiet part. Her initial haughtiness towards companion Ellen quickly alleviates however when things don’t go entirely to her liking.
As one attends to the petulant, but suffering, Queen Margaret (Sarita Gabony), another resigning themselves to an entertainer out of necessity. But commonplace appearances shift as this entertainer, Ellen, becomes none other than The Queen of The Fight – a symbol of victory, and a distraction to the King’s eye.
Danielle Jam plays an understated hand of magnificence throughout, enabling the character to settle into a sense of comfort and ease before the crushing realisation of the unspoken (until now) vulnerability that she will always carry. Her history. Her existence. Her skin. Flittering with a soupcon of humour – Jam’s presence emboldens the already rich performances from Cahill and Keith Fleming’s poet Dunbar, who in turn is providing an excellent performance as the favour-gaining perpetrator of the production’s most intense scene.
Thus far the drama of favour and humility has rippled on the surface but steadily distorts into something agonising, something cutting. And when the awaited sense of weight is thrust into the narrative, this overdue moment rips the air from the lungs and vanquishes any smiles which may linger. Demonstrating the duality in difficulties of their provisions, Ellen and Anne fight an even more uphill struggle than others. One where, like the remainder of the court, they vie for a social position within it. But secondly, their status as an other, an outsider, something which leaves a mark on the pages of history no matter how we attempt to conceal it.
Authenticity has a part within Munro’s writing, and where historical fiction naturally finds a way to thrive, the inclusion of this racially charged poem, which unfortunately was indeed written, weaves back into the contemporary nature of things. Spotlighting the nation’s moral failings and reluctance to move past its forlorn and rose-tinted spectacles of history, to the brutal truth. Even the inclusion of a more diverse Scots dialect does occasionally play the role of humour rather than representation.
But there is a glimmer of hope. One Munro finds intolerable to extinguish. Never has a kiss held so much. One of romance yes, but even more of platonic appreciation. One of survival.
From The Last Witch to the eventual Last King (the finale does lay the foundations for James V and subsequent), Munro continues their position as a juggernaut of understanding how history interweaves with the contemporary. And no matter how we conceal or finesse this, one day we will all meet the gaze of the people who have been failed. For the show’s blemishes, there’s something special about this production. Antiquity, a rare turn, indeed not seen since Munro’s original James trilogy, that the cobbles of Edinburgh have welcomed a King of Scotland and the women who defined and defied his court.
Runs until 8 October 2022 then touring | Image: Mihaela Bodlovic