Review: The James Plays at the National Theatre, London (11/10/2014)

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3.5 stars

While Rona Munroe’s trilogy of plays might focus on a bygone age performances in a year that has seen debates over Scotland and the Scottish identity come to the forefront of national discussion casts these “histories” in a new light. Munroe even slips in a few coy references to modern politics including subtle snub of certain political parties through colours of cloth. Produced in a collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland and the Edinburgh International Festival, the latter of which the plays premiered at before transferring to London, Monroe’s plays aim to shed light on an oft-forgotten period of Scottish history. Each of the plays uses the same ensemble cast for most of the roles and they all unfold over the same Scottish flag with a huge sword thrusting out of it. Special mention should also go to the production’s utilisation of the on-stage seating, an exciting and relatively cheap way to view the performance as a member of the various Parliaments.

The first of the plays, James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock, sees the titular James (James McArdle) return to his native Scotland after a lifetime as an English prisoner haunted by the memory of his captor Henry V (Jamie Sives). Here he runs into conflict on all sides, with his brutish Scottish cousins reluctant to relinquish the power they gained in his absence and his Parliament distrustful of his ‘English’ sensibilities. His relationship with his lonely English bride (Stephanie Hyam) is also fraught as he struggles to communicate with her outside of writing poetry. The focus here is on ideas of kingship with the warrior Henry V, sensitive poet James and the barbaric Stewart lords juxtaposed against each other culminating in a battle where James must conquer his enemies of both the past and present. James I takes the most traditional approach of the three in terms of story and staging and in some ways this makes it the least engaging. However there are strong performances from McArdle as the struggling king and Gordon Kennedy and Blythe Duff as the scheming Murdac and Isabella Stewart.

The next in the trilogy, James II: Day of The Innocents, tells a more psychological tale revealing itself as a character study of the tortured protagonist (Andrew Rothney) and his friendship with William Douglas (Mark Rowley). Beginning with scenes from James’ childhood, which are staged through an innovative use of puppetry, we whip through a succession of traumatic events from the murder of his father and the abandonment of his mother (Hyam again, now bloodstained and half-mad) to the brutal execution of the Earl of Douglas carried out in his name and the cruel taunts he receives from the now-imprisoned Isabella Stewart. Interspersed with hallucinatory scenes of James’ nightmares is the story of his and Douglas’ friendship from childhood into his majority and gradually the disintegration of their trust and the emergence of James’ “dark blood”. Rothney does wonderfully as the misused king and Blythe Duff is again a standout with her melancholy, mad Isabella. James II is perhaps the most daring of the three plays with it’s psychological tale and interesting staging, but it’s the last play, James III: The True Mirror, that I found most compelling.

This time the attention is focused more heavily on the women of the court, particularly James’s wife Margaret (The Killing‘s Sofie Gråbøl in a wonderful performance). While playboy and party animal James indulges himself in dreams of a foreign pilgrimage and building a glorious cathedral his wife and John, Head of the Privy Council (Kennedy) are left to clean up his messes. Opening with a court party set to Highland-style covers of Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way‘ and Lorde’s ‘Royals‘ the atmosphere here is much less grim than in the previous two instalments, James’ reign might be sliding into ruin and revolt but he’ll go down in style at least. Ultimately though while Sives gives an excellent performance as James III the play belongs to Gråbøl’s Margaret, whose journey to self-acceptance is the true heart of the play. It’s a joy to see women from history given proper attention, something the BBC also attempted with last year’s The White Queen. However, the last of the trilogy does sit a little uneasily aside the other two with it’s lighter tone and mix modern costumes and music at odds with James I‘s traditional history and the darkness of James II. There’s something engaging and admirable to find in each of the plays though together they fail to make a truly cohesive whole.

The James Plays run at the National Theatre, London until 29th October 2014. More information and tickets can be found here. 

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