DramaReviewSouth West

The James Plays – Lyric Theatre Royal, Plymouth

  • James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock
  • James II – Day of The Innocents
  • James III – The True Mirror

Author: Rona Munro
Composers: Paul Leonard-Morgan and Will Gregory
Director: Laurie Sansom
Movement Director: Neil Battles
Musical Director: Alasdair Macrae

Playwright Rona Munro’s bloodthirsty epic of 15th Century Stewart monarchy is fresh, exciting and eminently watchable – even for a whole seven hour s-plus marathon (although it is written to allow the less robust to pick up any of the three piecemeal).

The National Theatre of Scotland’s story of three generations of kings, dysfunctional families, arranged marriages, and the beloved high-skied, bleak, damp Scotland rather illustrates Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of a Scotsman being someone whoremembers and cherishes the memory of his forebears, good or bad; and there burns alive in him a sense of identity with the dead…’.

Opening with the most engaging of the trilogy, James I, Munro’s ripe language and contemporary references are swiftly introduced as are the themes of just what kingship means.

England’s Henry V (Matthew Pidgeon) is clear that a successful king must be willing to sleep with unknown people and execute his relatives. And that is indeed proved the case. Yet it is not enough: the trilogy shows that is also all about the people – the Scots families, the courtiers and the farmers.

Imprisoned in Windsor Castle at just 10-years-old, sensitive (and oddly rather knowing of the rural ways of Scottish crofters) James I (superbly played by Steven Miller) is ransomed 18 years later and returned to the north to bring peace and a generous ransom.

Usurping the wise Regent Murdac (a stately John Stahl) and battling his wild and irrepressible cousins (Ali Craig, Daniel Cahill and Andrew Rothney), James I is an interesting study in common sense, sensitivity and growing confidence in governance, and belief in the rule of law.

Rosemary Boyle makes a capable debut as frightened Queen Joan, whose teenage capability and ebullience is systematically eroded while the excellent Blythe Duff (Taggart) commands the stage as harridan Isabella.

Beautiful direction by Laurie Sansom keeps interest and belief alive as even the most mundane preparation of a feast is fascinating with asides and interplay of characters while juxtaposition of birthing and battle is most effective.

Running blood, song and word pictures of Scottish landscape, and plenty of information imparted regarding allegiances, relationships, and intricacies of household husbandry and diet and the scene is set for the rest of the day.

The character of the poet king is assassinated in James II where rumour has it that he died a grasping coward hiding in the drains having abandoned his wife and small children to attacking swordsmen.

Where pounding drums heralded the first play, dancing and somewhat jaunty music segues into a difficult, much darker piece with little humour. Dream sequences and shuffling of time and memories keep the piece off-kilter as the audience experiences the nightmares and psychosis of the young king (Andrew Rothney sporting an Aladdin Sane-esque port wine stain).

This is a piece of fatal friendships, politics, broken promises, children exposed to violence and harsh realities, and a damaged infant growing, learning and disposing of self-interested puppet-masters.

Chests loom large as the theme of somewhere to keep secrets safe spills over from the earlier piece. Characters – and actors – reappear: Joan betrays her children for a chance of passion; the increasingly nasty late-starter Balvenie (Peter Forbes) proves land is indeed power; Duff is a compelling study in grief-stricken madness and malevolence; Meg (an engaging Sally Reid) transforms from feisty maid to cosseting surrogate mother.

Unfortunately the reappearance of Stahl, identical in look and garb to the stalwart Murdac, as the scheming, camp Livingston is confusing and William’s sudden descent from BBF to baddie is a tad difficult to grasp. Mary may have been afraid of him but,instead, he elicits sympathy as a somewhat simple, cruelly beaten heir to a desperately acquisitive father.

Styling is gloomy lighting, striking steel sound effects and boxes, boxes, everywhere – secrets stacked and concealed. Most atmospheric.

Abandoning James II just as he starts his unfettered reign leaves his adulthood largely unexplored and James III offers little additional information save that he was blown to bits leaving his heir with the crown at just eight-years-old.

Opening with ceilidh versions of modern classics – Up The Junction, Happy and more – James III is set in a much less stark castle. It may be the same building but here there is opulence and flowers, gold leaf and sumptuous silks.

This James is a bullying, lazy, lascivious megalomaniac. Pidgeon is most believable as the feckless king whose disregard for the people and relentless pursuit of hedonistic pleasures is a recipe for conspiracy and disaster.

Dismissive of his children, disinterested in the affairs of state – unless it is to raise taxes to fund an architectural tour of foreign cathedrals or to acquire a personal sycophantic choir – James III is a colourful character with a unique way of entertaining – and surprising – visiting dukes.

His saving grace is his noble and practical wife Margaret – a Norwegian import whose dowry included Orkney and the Shetland Isles. Malin Crepin is most convincing in this, her one role of the evening, sexy, maternal, shrewd, regal and fun.

Duff is back again – now bringing a dry humour and gravitas as the king’s aunt Annabella. Acerbic and bawdy, she adds great humour whether chasing chicks, shocking innocent youths or tracking down the best wine.

Cahill makes a good fist of the difficult task of playing the growing son and heir – adults playing children is often unavoidable but utilised much in the trilogy with varying success – while Miller returns as Sandy, brother to the king and favourite uncle.

The dysfunctional family collapses, and intrigue and sibling rivalry rise until the ultimate price is paid. But paramount is blood and possession which is poignantly illustrated in the superb final coronation scene.

Jon Bausor’s set is imposing and versatile. The stark battlements with looming hangman’s nooses in the opening scene, drawbridge, steps and basic furnishings are embellished as time passes – candles, cloths, windows and those chests in James II while by James III roses grow over the rugged walls, delicate furniture and pretty fabrics adorn the casements while a bathing area is the height of sophistication.

On stage seating is in ranks above the main action but beside the throne room and in Parliament. It seems a conceit, however, perhaps rather than looking at rather a lot of backs and into spotlights, it places one in the action and perhaps proximity allows a new dimension to be appreciated. It must though surely place an added onus on this talented, versatile 20-piece cast, which remains on point every moment. Outstanding.

And dominating the stage and the action is the ever-present embedded, huge claymore, which runs blood, produces firecracker flame and is an inescapable reminder of the murderous path to peace.

Pack a cushion and sustenance but do not miss.

Runs until 29 May 2016 | Image: National Theatre of Scotland



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