The James Plays – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Writer: Rona Munro
Director: Laurie Sansom
Reviewer: Gareth Davies


Eighteen months after the National Theatre of Scotland staged this modern trilogy of Scottish history plays at the Edinburgh International Festival, the company have reunited for a mammoth six-month international tour. With a collective running time of nearly eight hours, Rona Munro’s epic cycle of stories takes us on a whirlwind romp through the lives of three 15th Century Scottish monarchs, and while the individual plays can be viewed separately as standalone pieces, collectively they offer a dramatic history lesson with decidedly mixed results.

Viewed chronologically, the first installment in the drama is easily the strongest. James I: The Key Will Keep the Lockopens on a French battlefield, with Henry V’s soldiers debating the fate of a handful of Scottish soldiers, imprisoned after fighting with the French against the English crown. James I (Steven Miller), king of Scotland, has spent 18 years a prisoner of the English king, and on his return to Scotland (with instructions to raise the money for his ransom, to be paid in retrospect) is given a cautious welcome.

The ensemble work and the stagecraft in this introduction to the Stewart dynasty are near-perfect, with the story moving forward with clarity and the characters sharply defined in Munro’s text, a witty and wordy presentation of history and humour. Miller excels as the king learning to rule on his own terms, winning over his people with charm and intelligence and a certain regal vulnerability. John Stahl stands out as Murdac Stewart, the man who has ruled Scotland as regent in the king’s absence and heading up a family whose allegiances will test the king’s character. Troubled by his sons’ behaviour, Stahl’s Murdac offers wise counsel and offers the king a dramatic means to cement his authority in the region. Alongside him, his wife Isabella (Blythe Duff) offers a force of smilingly malevolent femininity as she surreptitiously takes on the new queen (Rosemary Boyle) in a vicious battle for domestic power.

There are battles and betrayals, and it’s not hard to be drawn into the intriguing power plays that ensue as James cements his authority as king of the Scots.

Unfortunately, little of that dramatic power is carried forward into the second story in the trilogy. James II: Day of the Innocentsis by far the weakest in terms of story, writing, and execution. James II (Andrew Rothney) feels surprisingly sidelined, a supporting figure in his life story, as the focus of Munro’s text shifts to the rise of the Douglas family. Peter Forbes returns from the first play as Balvenie, whose rescue from Henry V’s battlefield has now allowed him to escalate his position in the country’s nobility. Whereas in the first play he was a sympathetic and charmingly benign power-hungry minor noble, suddenly he seems transformed into a tyrannical father, berating his eldest son William (Andrew Still) whose friendship with the king since childhood will unravel bloodily.

Watching adults overacting as children is a fairly tedious experience at the best of times, but the decision to feature children as the main figures in the story forces Munro’s writing to step back to a style and form which is less subtle, bears less subtext, and feels overall less authentic than her success in presenting the Scots tongue in James I. Moreover, starting mid-story (as the play undoubtedly is, being the middle part of a trio) invites a degree of exposition in the dialogue that seems poorly integrated into the drama at times.

Coupled with some overplayed nightmare sequences and John Stahl returning as a camp pantomime villain of Scottish nobility, it is easy for the audience to tire early in the story of James II. A dramatic representation of the infamous ‘Black Dinner’, in which the teenage Earl of Douglas and his younger brother are executed at Edinburgh Castle, is a meagre highlight.

That the play continues without a strong dramatic arc, with overwritten and distended scenes between the Douglas family, and an excruciatingly drawn out final showdown between James and his friend-cum-frenemy William, means it’s hard to shake the feeling that the absence of solid dramatic focus here may be indicative of the little dramatic impact ‘Jamie’ had on history itself.

While James II may not have proven to be a particularly rich vein of dramatic interest, the life of James III ought, by contrast, to offer a far more dynamic conclusion to the trilogy. If, however, the opening bagpipe version of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way isn’t your idea of fun thenJames III: The True Mirrorwill feel like a long, slow slide towards death.

The use of modern music to underscore the story’s contemporary resonances is an example of director Laurie Sansom grossly over-egging the pudding. Styling James III (Matthew Pidgeon) as a chaotic narcissist, and making him a figure of fun, undermines the impact and effect such a figure has on his world. The contemporary echoes of world leaders who operate on vanity are dangerously apparent, but the danger is dissipated and diminished – to use the play’s own mirror conceit, no one takes the bloated distortions of a circus mirror as seriously as a true reflection of the state of things, and the comedic reflection of narcissistic power we are shown here is too easily dismissed as irrelevant.

There are still strong performances – Blythe Duff again brings wit and warmth as the king’s aunt Annabella, and Daniel Cahill presents a man growing from vulnerability to majesty as the young prince who will finally take the mantle of kingship and reign in turn as James IV. Indeed, as one programme note acknowledges, James III’s greatest legacy was his son, who as James IV was one of the most significant of all the Scottish monarchs. Alas, this cycle of stories finishes just as we might finally be given something truly dramatic with which to engage.

The versatility of Jon Bausor’s open arena-style staging, with seating for audience members overlooking the performance space, is one of these productions’ high points. It’s visually pleasing, with an enormous claymore dominating the stagescape, lest we ever forget that this is a world where power is a physical force to be taken and utilised, and subtle shifts in design between the three segments of the plays reflect the evolving historical background and settings.

Taken together, as these three stories surely should be, the primary strength lies in the clarity and character of the first play while the second and third offer little to bolster and build on its intriguing vision of a political landscape constantly shifting and shaping around its people. There seems little of Scotland itself in the second and third stories, which is a shame considering the richness of some of the source material.

Casual viewers can probably skip the latter parts of this theatrical package in favour of the first installment, which stands alone as a vision of Scotland’s ongoing shaping as a nation. Theatrical aficionados who see this as a rare opportunity to catch a trilogy of coherent dramas packaged together should be advised that grasping this particular thistle may yield mixed results.

Individually, James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock – 4.5 stars, James II: The Day of the Innocents – 3 stars and James III: The True Mirror – 3.5 stars. Collectively – 3.5 stars.

Reviewed on 6 February 2016 | Image: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

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  1. Loved the trilogy and not a regular theatre goer. Favourite was James I and II in that order. Whilst I liked the concept and themes of James III could not feel any empathy for James III or his queen. Think the above criticisms are too harsh and don’t reflect my experience.

  2. Your reviewer contradicts himself by saying that the plays should get taken together and then taking them individually, preferring the first. Taken together the plays are about kingship and power (or lack of it) from varying perspectives and of varying pace and tone. Together they raise fascinating questions about nationhood and royalty. I was mainly excited by the first, moved by the second, intrigued by the third and delighted at the wit and power of the whole production.

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