Rona Munro’s The James Plays trilogy pitches like a theatrical endurance test. Certainly that’s how I approached it, limbering up outside Glasgow’s King’s Theatre at 11am on a bright Saturday morning in my leggings, armed with water and slow-release carbs and Ibuprofened up to my eyeballs. The pleasant surprise is that the three plays – when taken together in their seven-and-a-half turbulent hours of sex, murder and enough dodgy politics to make even David Cameron issue a half-arsed apology – resolve into a dynamic, accessible retelling of Scottish history that in both its narrative lucidity and technical achievement is close to breathtaking.
In each of the plays, different aspects of the creative process get their chance to shine. In James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock, it’s Rona Munro’s lean, muscular writing that blazes.
In only a dozen or so acutely crafted scenes, we are introduced to the murderous mire of fifteenth century Scottish politics. The stage is stark: rough-hewn edges, stone and darkness, dominated by the blood-spattered blade that protrudes from the floorboards – a sword of war or, more likely, a dagger to thrust into your best mate’s back. Within this bleakness though, Munro’s characters glitter like hammered steel: fallible, malleable, multi-faceted figures staring us fearlessly in the eye and telling us to fuck off. Quite literally. One of the joys of Munro’s production is the jettisoning of any pseudo-Shakespearean versifying: it’s all broad Scots and vigorous swearing and anything-for-a-laugh; Scottish in its bones.
As the prisoner poet King, Steven Miller’s James I is softer, more awkward than the original production’s James McArdle, his performance strongest in the King’s moments of steely resolve. His steady tenacity is a stark contrast to the violent delights of Scotland’s ousted first family, the (other) Stewarts: Murduc (an imposing John Stahl), bloodthirsty matriarch Isabella (Blythe Duff having a stupendously good time) and their brutish sons Walter, Alasdair and Big James (played with gleeful belligerence by Andrew Rothney, Daniel Cahill and Ali Craig). The resulting battle, where James finally faces so many of his demons, is electrifying. The momentum only stutters slightly in the epilogue, as Munro struggles to find a neat ending for any audience members not hardy enough to sit through the next five hours.
If James I suffers a little from extreme exposition, James II: Day of the Innocents, compensates by abandoning linear time altogether and catapulting the audience straight into a twenty minute PTSD dream sequence.
Structured around the memories of the haunted young King, ‘wee Jamie’, this second part of the trilogy swerves away from James I’s historical drama towards psychological thriller. Philip Gladwell’s eerie violet shadows and dazzling strobes, the unsettling tinkling of Paul Leonard-Morgan’s soundtrack, and the roar of pyrotechnics are a visceral manifestation of how Jamie’s poisoned childhood haunts the political manoeuvres of his adult self. However, despite judicious reworking since its premiere, James II is still the most disjointed of the plays, losing velocity after its spectacular opening and meandering through narrative touch-points to abrupt conclusion. A shame, as the claustrophobic horror and fevered relationships of James II are among the trilogy’s most interesting inventions, and draw engrossing performances from the cast, especially Andrew Rothney as Jamie, Andrew Still as the volatile William Douglas, and Peter Forbes (returning from James I) as the increasingly despicable Balvenie.
At this point, it’s a full two hours until the appearance of Scotland’s most fabulous King, James III, and the audience file out to debrief and regroup for the final leg. Aside from a knee in desperate need of some WD40, I’m feeling smug about my endurance levels and up for chat with my new mates in Row K about the two slices of theatrical bombast we’ve just witnessed. There’s a warm buzz of excitement around the exiting audience as they compare and contrast the two very different plays, our curiosity piqued for what Munro, director Laurie Sansom and their court have concocted for the Stewart clan’s swan song.
The short answer is: something gorgeous. James III: The True Mirror is a lavish gift from the design team and perfect for a wine-fuelled Saturday evening at the theatre. In place of James II’s decimated battlements, the re-dressed set drips in decadence: twinkling chandeliers, glinting gold leaf. The cast are onstage as the audience take their seats, enjoying bright, modernised costumes and rowdy, ceilidh-fied versions of Lady Gaga and Pharrel Williams – a musical shorthand for the fifty-four years between this play and the pounding war drums that opened James I.
James III contracts the action once again from clan in-fighting to (royal) kitchen-sink domesticity, revolving around the tempestuous relationship between Matthew Pigeon’s flamboyant, leather-clad King and his level-headed Danish Queen, Margaret – who remains one of the strongest characters of the trilogy, although Malin Crépin lacks the presence of the original production’s Scandi heavyweight Sofie Gråbøl. The true mirror of the title, part of the King’s expansive collection of foreign treasures, is an eloquent metaphor for the reflective nature of the play, as James III, and eventually his embittered son, James IV, struggle to reconcile themselves with the disparate expectations of their lineage. The audience join them in this, looking back (in one touching scene, literally) over the three generations that have gone before and the personalities that shaped Scottish history.
Although the narrative again becomes a little flabby and sentimental towards the end, Margaret’s stirring address to her parliament can’t fail to rouse the latent patriotism in the local audience. Her best line: “You lot! You have nothing but attitude!” elicits a roar of whooping and applause, and when the lights finally go down, the audience surge to their feet in a standing ovation.
As a manifestation of both Scotland’s historical character and Scotland’s theatrical ambition, it’s a reaction The James Plays fully, exhaustively deserve.
The James Plays are now touring. Click here for dates and tickets.