For kings and politicians, ambition may become a dangerous force. It is, after all, the flaw that brings about Caesar’s death according to Brutus. For a playwright, it’s hard to imagine how ambition could ever be a bad thing, though it’s a word often qualified by some kind of admission of, at least partial, failure. It’s a word that’s impossible to get away from in the case of Rona Munro’s epic historical trilogy, which clocks in at just under nine hours in total.
The comparisons to Shakespeare are also inevitable. Each play covers the life of a new generation’s king of Scotland and in its final moments, we see the next king making his way to address his people. The cycle is performed by a single company in a brutalist, metallic set complete with onstage seating, almost completing the circle of Olivier’s amphitheatre structure.
Like the RSC’s last Henry cycle, the set is more concerned with function than representation. The language is not dissimilar. From the beginning, Munro’s medieval kings speak in an entirely modern cadence. James McArdle’s James I – in The Key Will Keep The Lock – is an amateur poet and a great patron of the arts apparently but you wouldn’t think it to hear him speak. His normality brings to the fore the idea of a young man who has his position as King thrust upon him. This first play is at its best in the moments of social comedy in the King’s relationship with the excellent Stephanie Hyam’s young Queen. Munro’s achievement is to imagine an emotional throughline to that relationship. It is ultimately James’s desire to protect his wife that leads him to commit acts of brutality.
It is the women who seem to open up the play’s imaginative territory so that it doesn’t feel like we are having a history lesson. It is Queen Mary (Stephanie Hyam again) in James II, who will eventually help her husband overcome his nightmares brought about the years of captivity and violence and betrayals committed in his name. When James (Andrew Rothney) decides that it is time to assert his authority, it is at her instigation. Though the core of that play is James’s relationship with his best friend William Douglas (Mark Rowley), the Queen is pivotal to the moment’s of transition and it is her arrival that shows the teenage king that he needs to become a man and set aside childish things, including his relationship with Douglas.
In the final play of the trilogy, The True Mirror, we see James III (Jamie Sives) and his Queen (The Killing’s Sofie Grabol) later in life. James appears to be actively trying to piss people off in order to get overthrown. He is portrayed as a kind of Nero or Caligula. His extravagance may be destroying Scotland but it’s very entertaining to watch, particularly when he decides to get a choir to follow him around commenting on everything he does. While the first two plays focus on characters who are at the point of taking on adult responsibilities, James III hates the idea of becoming old and hates his son because his eldest son because he represents the future and, by implication, his own death. He is filled with self hatred and turns frequently on his Danish Queen.
Her strength of character begins to show when he brings her a mirror to show her how old she looks. She likes the way she looks and it’s here that the real unravelling of James III begins. When he throws a strop and leaves the country, it is the Queen that holds Scotland together. She reveals herself to the leader her husband was never willing or able to be.
Each play centres around one core relationship and, while there are many other characters, it is always in the scenes that are essentially two handers that we get an understanding of the characters. It is also in these scenes that the modern language works best because there’s a directness and immediacy about imagining these situations as if they were happening right now.
The moments of public address are far less convincing. Dramatically, they need to win over the rival factions of a warlike and wartorn country. What’s needed are great moments of oratory but the quotidien nature of the dialogue that works so well in the domestic scenes carries through into these public moments rendering them lacklustre. Even looking at modern examples, this is a far cry from the rhetoric of Barack Obama or even Tony Blair.
For those looking for a modern day equivalent of Shakespeare’s histories, this cycle isn’t it. Instead, it’s a highly accessible, often funny, occasionally insightful trilogy that keeps the action ticking along nicely. It’s closer to the experience of watching a TV box set of Game of Thrones or The Tudors (and features some of the same actors). It’ll make a killing at the box office and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s turned into a film or a TV show itself. If that’s the ambition, then it’s mission accomplished.