(James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock; James II: Day of the Innocents; James III: The True Mirror) by Rona Munro
Dir. Laurie Sansom, King’s Theatre, 8th-10th April 2016
It’s not good practice to have the words of other reviewers in mind when approaching a piece for the first time, but it is difficult to separate The James Plays from their comparison to Shakespeare or Game of Thrones. Weighing in at over seven hours of theatre if you opt for all three, the Jameses are indeed epic in scale, though not always in content.
Spanning seven decades of 15th century Scottish history, the Jameses tell the stories of three little known Scottish kings. Through their course they paint a picture of a brutal country in an unforgiving time, exploring in their turn feudal violence, male friendship, and the search for a meaning bigger than survival. Against these backdrops each James has a queen, all strangers to the country, who must struggle to reconcile womanhood with the ruthless court and country.
As a set up it bodes well, but in its realisation James I in particular lags. Partially obscured by the dramatically-accepted fact that in Scotland nobody says what they mean, the language is less circumlocutory and more repetitive, so that each line of dialogue causes the scene to drag exponentially. This is James I’s issue, its pacing. There is no surge and crash of tension or energy, instead it rambles and is punctuated with lacklustre fight scenes.
When language is out of the equation however, the strength of the cast as an ensemble is allowed to shine. Haunting vocals and rousing drums build these scenes beautifully, and the large-scale choreography of battle is fluid and strong. This is a world where the pack will always tear a lone figure apart, and the Stewart brothers (Daniel Cahill, Ali Craig and Andrew Rothney) use this to their advantage. With the careless saunter of the modern lad, their thoughtless violence and assumed privilege is fascinating and repulsive. The horrific height of this sees their crowing energy turned against the new Queen Joan (Rosemary Boyle), whose wedding night is witnessed by the men of the court. Throughout the plays violence against women in the name of tradition is starkly highlighted, as well as insidious. It is however necessary to stay till James III to see any of them fight back successfully. James II does set up a female friendship in parallel to its central story, but it also throws a bad mother/whore, a virgin and a mad woman in the attic into the mix, without really examining these roles.
James II picks up in terms of its focus, following the friendship of James II as a child king with William Douglas, the son of one of James’s advisors. Andrew Rothney and Andrew Still in these roles build the most compelling relationship of the trilogy, perhaps due to theirs being the relationship which is given time to breathe. Despite the length of the trilogy, so much is left to happen offstage or in the spaces between the plays, causing difficulty to feel any kind of investment for many of the key players. Balvenie (Peter Forbes) is one of the few who can be seen to grow and change in a coherent manner. Ticks of habit and language follow him throughout James I and II, which see him turn from the butt of the Stewart jokes to a tyrant advisor and father in a considered and gratifying performance.
The nightmare sequences that haunt the young King James give James II its dark edge, proving that these darker stories are better told through theatrical means than literary. Things take a turn for the wittier for James III however, thanks to the introduction of this King James’s infamous preference of lower class ‘favourites’ rather than wealthy bores, as well as the delight that is Malin Crépin as his Queen Margaret. She is the one who runs the show here, giving King James time to sit in rose gardens and plan cathedrals and ponder the question, hinted at by William Douglas in the previous play, what is this all for? What good is battle and political intrigue if there is no time or peace to enjoy the spoils? This is the most poignant question in the trilogy, and it’s a shame that, while it is set up from the beginning, it isn’t properly explored until the final part. Nonetheless, James III on the whole provides the humour and thoughtfulness we’ve been waiting for, despite the rather overwrought “true mirror” metaphor.
The Jameses are rousing in their theatrical elements, in particular the sound design of James II (Christopher Shutt) and the music (Paul Leonard-Morgan and Will Gregory) and set and costume design (Jon Bausor) throughout. On leaving the theatre, it cannot be denied that we know more about Scottish history, even if a lot of it is fleshed out by the programme notes. The why of the matter is still pressing though: why these stories? Why these characters? Why now? Although the original pre-referendum run may answer a couple of these, it doesn’t seem to be enough to make a modern classic. While each component has its charms and its insights, by the time these amount to a satisfying pay off, the investment seems excessive.
Image – National Theatre of Scotland