As a Sassenach, it’s fairly shocking how Scottish history pre-1603 didn’t get taught at school when I was a lad. Everyone knows that James VI of Scotland became James I of England, but who were James I – V? Thanks to Shakespeare, we know of Macbeth, and by association Duncan, but I reckon most English people would be hard-pressed to give you the name of any other Scottish monarch. So one function of Rona Munro’s The James Plays is already sorted – filling the gaping holes in the brains of us folk south of the border with some of the missing bits of Scottish history. It’s almost a shame she confesses in the programme that she made some of it up.
The James Plays were premiered in 2014 in a joint production between the National Theatre of Scotland, the National Theatre of Great Britain and the Edinburgh International Festival. Now they’re back for a UK and International tour, popping up for weekends in a theatre near you, where all three plays are performed on each day – James I in the morning, James II for the matinee, and James III in the evening. What struck me was how self-contained each play is. Mrs Chrisparkle and I grasped the production with all our mettle and saw all three plays on the same day – rather like we did with Young Chekhov last year. But that isn’t necessary. You don’t even need to see them in the chronological order, although the final tableau of James III makes more sense if you do.
Each play also has its own very distinctive vibe, with the three kings having very different personality characteristics. James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock is on a grand scale, full of warrior declamations, court scenes, a Royal Wedding, and plenty of bloody deaths. It’s the tale of the ascent of the king and his subsequent downfall. It’s the one that felt most Shakespearean to me; it’s also, by far, the funniest. Yes, you don’t expect these plays to be funny, do you? At times, James I (the play, not so much the man) is hysterically funny. James II – Day of the Innocents feels much more introverted by comparison, dealing with the shy boy king and his growing friendship with William Douglas. Once again it’s a play featuring the strategies of war and political motivations, but it’s seen more from the perspective of emotions and relationships. It also sports a tremendous trick on the audience with a repeated scene where his mother becomes his wife – you’ll have to see it to appreciate what I mean. James III – The True Mirror has an almost surreal atmosphere at times, with a king whose grasp on sanity is sometimes questionable, and a Royal court in disharmony due to adultery and financial mishandling, but ending with a more optimistic sense of what the future is going to hold.
The three plays are directed by Laurie Sansom and it’s a pleasure to welcome him back to the theatre where he was Artistic Director until 2013. I can’t think of a safer pair of hands to tackle this triptych of treachery than Mr Sansom. Having seen a number of his productions, I remain convinced that no one can create a pure sense of ensemble within a cast like he can. I don’t know how he does it. Maybe he adds a little cement to their breakfast cereal in the mornings. But whenever you see a Sansom show you can instantly recognise that amazing understanding between cast members which leads to a generosity of performance, a truly confident fluidity of movement, and a communal sense that they’re all in it together. You can even see this in the casting; one actor will take a major role in one of the plays, then merely be listed as ensemble in another. Not that ensemble is a second-class role when Laurie’s at the helm.
For this production you can choose from the standard auditorium seating or tiered seating on the stage. I’m usually jealous of people who see a production from the stage because I always think they’re getting an intimate involvement with the action that I’m missing out on. That’s because, when I was 15, I went on a school trip to see Equus,- brave of the teacher if nothing else – and we were perched on on-stage benches in spitting distance of the late Colin Blakely and Gerry Sundquist and it was theatrical magic. However, it wasn’t that long ago that I retried the experiment with onstage seating for Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios and it was a total disaster. Couldn’t see a bloody thing. So this time I went with my gut reaction to take my usual Row G of the Stalls and it was the best decision. There would be a few scenes where you could not see what was going on if you were seated on stage, and you would certainly lose the overall impact of the grand spectacle. Plus, there’s a socking great sword stuck into the stage and if you were sat behind that, I doubt if you could see past the hilt.
As I suggested earlier, you can’t pick out one star performer or role who leads the cast as you might in most standard productions. So let’s start with the kings and work backwards. James I is played by that charismatic and exciting actor Steven Miller, whom we last saw as the most convincingly manipulative Iago in Frantic Assembly’s Othello. He brings to the role a sense of innate nobility and quiet power which makes so strong a contrast with Henry V and the ruffian Stewart family whose capture he witnesses and whose company he has to endure. He really brings out the humanity of the character, trying to do the right thing and to balance his regal and family obligations. He also adds a tremendous naiveté to the whole wedding scene. I think he’s definitely One To Watch.
As James II, Andrew Rothney is totally believable as the nervous little boy shutting himself away in his kist, slowly finding his confidence to become an assertive young man. Is it wrong of me to wish that his birthmark hadn’t been shaped like the outline of Scotland? But I also thought Mr Rothney was chillingly superb as the malicious Walter Stewart in James I, scornfully patronising the king and justifying his own inhumane behaviour. Matthew Pidgeon’s James III is an increasingly disturbing portrayal of a man on the edge, constantly pushing at barriers to see what he will get away with next. With his eyeliner and ever closer interest in all things camp, he reminded me of a psychotic Tim Minchin. And his Henry V is a brilliantly rumbustious and argumentative presence, combining arrogant brutality with a surprising vulnerability. Three fantastic performances.
These regal leaders have some feisty women to contend with too. Rosemary Boyle is brilliant as Joan, particularly in her younger days, fussing and fuming with an explosive vitality, assuming an air of responsibility whilst she’s still really just a little girl. Her torment as she is married to the unpredictable king is wonderfully portrayed in the scene where he is late – then absent – for dinner when they should be providing hospitality to the Stewarts. Blythe Duff’s Isabella is an unapologetically assertive opponent who’s not above psyching out the queen with her “soup”, but her reaction to her personal tragedy of losing her sons is genuinely heartbreaking, and her perpetual presence up in the prison is really moving. She’s also terrific as the sarcastic but also kindly Annabella, a hanger-on at court but giving much needed support to her self-hating great-nephew at the end. Malin Crépin is excellent as James III’s queen Margaret, a true survivor, combatting her liege’s excesses by distracting him with colourful scarves, carrying on the business of ruling behind his back, defeating the influence of his girlfriend with the use of the mirror, and even assuming power in his absence.
Other stand out performances include Sally Reid as the cheeky but loyal Meg, sent as a “present” to Joan and who becomes James II’s nanny; Andrew Still, outstanding as William Douglas, James II’s boyhood friend but eventual enemy; John Stahl, forceful and dominant as Murdac the Regent of Scotland prior to James I’s coronation; Ali Craig, as the aggressive and powerful Big Jim Stewart; Peter Forbes as the wretched Balvenie, picking his way through the politics to get the best deal for himself; and Daniel Cahill, as the son that James III didn’t care for and abandoned, who develops into a 14-year-old warrior and, in a very moving and brave final scene, comes to terms with his regicidal action and prepares to become James IV hereafter – kudos to you sir. But, as I said earlier, this is primarily an ensemble production and every single member of the cast gives to the day a huge commitment, great style, and brings the best out of Rona Munro’s wonderfully modern text.
Expect a day of fantastic spectacle, superbly evocative music, and thoroughly engrossing drama. The costume, and most particularly lighting departments exceed all expectations and play a truly dynamic role in the overall production. Yes, I did think the second play would have benefited from being about twenty minutes shorter; and yes, although it was highly amusing in its anachronism, I was most surprised that the court of James III was so keen on The Human League’s back catalogue. But, above all, expect a day of electric performances and riveting drama. The tour continues till June and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.
P. S. I bumped into Laurie Sansom during the interval of James III. I told him he hadn’t lost it. He seemed relieved.