It sounded like “event theatre” in the Festival programme; and so I decided to devote all my Festival theatre-going to the first run of the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre [of Great Britain] co-production of Rona Munro’s “James Plays”, a cycle of three historical plays about the medieval Scottish kings James l, ll and lll.
First, a major caveat: for convenience and economy, I went to the public previews of the plays on three nights in the week before the Festival opened properly. As with all productions, but more so with previews, things may change as the production progresses. (They are being performed in London in September and October.)
It is difficult not to view just about everything to do with Scotland through the lens of politics at this time, and that was particularly true of these plays. In the programme, Ms Munro states that the plays were conceived and commissioned before September’s referendum on Scotland’s independence was discussed by politicians, though it is possible that some of the writing was done after the date for the vote was fixed.
The plays are overtly political: they deal with the kings’ relationship with their parliaments (an unelected body of nobles) and focus on power, influence and loyalty. The idea of nationhood and its relationship to the crown and the powerful (and rich) earls is central. Power and wealth come through property: the stories frequently revolve around the struggle for more land. The church is also a presence throughout: not least through the large broad sword which dominated the set, its handle creating a cross. The sword reflects the brutality and cruelty of the time; violence was never far from the action. God may have made kings, but it seems He used men and their swords to accomplish it.
Interestingly, though the main characters are men – the three kings and the earls – much of the plays concentrates on the role of women at court. The wives and, successively, mothers of the kings determine much of the action. Their wants and desires, and their presence and absence, drive the plot in each of the plays.
Whilst the three plays have common themes and stand as a whole, they were each quite different and separate, too (the more surprising since they were all directed by the NTS’s artistic director, Laurie Sansom). The same set is used quiet differently in each; the wardrobes change from period to modern dress (the kilts rankled a little – a garment not invented until Georgian times; though same could be said of trousers and other items, I would guess); they were lit quite differently. The mood, the feel of each play was different.
The first, “James l: The Key Will Keep The Lock” was good but, when I saw it, felt over long. There was an uncertainty about it – a trepidation reflected in the young king, imprisoned for years by the English, trying to establish his rule. Whether this stemmed from the script, the direction or the fact that I saw it on the first night of a long run when the cast were still getting used to the staging, the venue – and having an audience – I can’t say. I thought it interesting but flawed; I heard several voices as I left who hadn’t appreciated it.
The second, “James ll: Day of the Innocents”, felt completely different. It was more theatrical, particularly in the way it depicted events from James’ childhood. The same set felt different. This play felt more accomplished, more dramatic.
The last, “James lll: the True Mirror” was different yet again. It was lighter and brighter: it opened with the cast singing and dancing on stage in an easy manner – it didn’t feel contrived. The performance by Sofie Gråbøl (best known in Britain for wearing cardigans in Nordic noir) was superlative; the key speech that Munro wrote for Queen Margaret, James’ Danish-Norwegian wife, was powerful rhetoric (and probably swung a few “don’t know” referendum votes!).
Gråbøl only appears in the last play; most of the cast appear in all three, not least Gordon Kennedy who plays a different manipulative adviser in each. The continuity of characters and cast between the first two plays works well, the characters developing as time elapses – not least Joan, wife to James l and mother to James ll – Stephanie Hyam then goes on to play James ll’s wife, Mary too. The transition of Balvenie (Peter Forbes) from a lowly noble in James l to the most powerful (if deeply flawed) earl in James ll is completely believable.
Producing these three plays was clearly a big undertaking, at a key time in Scotland. NTS, barely ten years old, has a record of producing challenging and rewarding work, and the three James plays add greatly to their rich repertoire.
(You can see images from the productions byphotographer Kenny Mathison on flickr.)
Some things annoy me. One thing that is pretty much guaranteed to annoy me is being told to enjoy myself. I’ll do what I want, thanks, and if you’re an entertainer and you feel the need to tell me that I should be enjoying myself – well, that makes me think that maybe you’re not doing you’re job. (This goes for promoters, too. Indeed, anyone standing on a stage trying to get an audience to react by bellowing “ARE YOU HAVING A GOOD TIME?” really should get another job. Because if you have to ask, the answer’s probably “NO!”)
And when you then tell the audience to lighten up and not look so serious, as Christian Scott did, well, I’m going to look like I look. And wonder if maybe I’m looking like that because you’re not entertaining me. And I really wouldn’t compound it by pointing at people in the front row of your concert.
If Mr Scott hadn’t spoken, it might have been fine. Not a great gig, but fun. But unfortunately he kept speaking. He instructed us to enjoy ourselves. He told us not to look serious. (That worked. Immediately: I changed the way I looked.)
And he spent maybe twenty minutes introducing the band. And the hilarious stories of how he met the band. And the pranks they played. And why he thought they were so great. Personally I’d have preferred hearing them play so I could make my own mind up, ta.
He also told us how he liked to mix styles. “I call it Fusion 2.0”, he said. Unfortunately, jazz has moved on to v5.7.3, and nothing Scott played sounded new, energetic or experimental. Most sessions on JazzOn3 are more challenging and exciting. It sounded like jazz-soul-funk from the 1980s – which is fine, but not what he promised. He has a lot of catching up to do.
The more straight ahead jazz numbers sounded fresher and more interesting, the band allowed the stretch out and flex their muscles. Even Elena Pinderhughes’ flute – a much maligned instrument in jazz – sounded good.
Scott’s trumpet playing was exciting, with lots of high notes pouring from his Dizzy-ing “bent” horn.
But the choice of numbers was stilted. With further audience participation, he asked what we’d like to hear for the last number, and someone shouted out “the blues!” So the band played a dragging, turgid version of “Blue Monk”. Sometimes it’s good not to give the punters what they want. It would have been sad to end the festival on that, and they pulled back with a rousing encore which barely featured Scott until his final, fiery solo.
This was the Edinburgh Jazz Festival gig I was most looking forward to, and simultaneously the one I was least looking forward to. That’s because it was the one that had the potential to disappoint me most, because my expectations were so high. Last tune I saw the Bad Plus play, I was disappointed, because the previous occasion – which happened to be the night before – they played, together with Joshua Redman, one of the most powerful, moving gigs I’ve ever been to. The following night, without Redman, could only have been disappointing.
What would happen this time?
Well, it wasn’t quite as good as that gig with Redman; but it was pretty close.
Spread over two long sets, they played some beautiful music. Playing music written by each of them but keeping to a band-style, the trio seems intricately balanced: Ethan Iverson seems serious on piano, Dave King brings irreverent humour on percussion (with a bag full of gadgets and a wry smile on his face – he always looks like he’s enjoyinging himself), and between the two of them is Reid Anderson on bass, propelling them along.
Anderson also writes the tunes which most resonate with me – his “Prehensile Dream” was a high point of the gig, brooding beauty building and building to its climax. For three people, they have a big sound. There is a lot going on without it being too busy or full.
So. This was the best of the several EJF gigs I went to this year, and I felt grateful and privileged to be there. Still, I can’t help but imagine what they’d have been like if they had surpassed their show with Redman…
I hadn’t seen Julian Arguelles play for several years, and then I get to see him twice in a week…
First up though was Leah Gough-Cooper and Hanna Paulsberg Quartet. I saw Gough-Cooper play in last year’s festival with a sextet, and whilst I thought the playing was excellent, the compositions didn’t work for me – they seemed took busy, as if trying to fit in everything she could do.
The tunes she and Paulsberg brought to the party this year were of a different order – simpler, but with more depth; essentially more mature. With Gough-Cooper on alto and Paulsberg on tenor, they had gutsy voices, ably helped by Calum Gourlay on bass. They played a really enjoyable set.
Arguelles set which followed was something else, though. A different league. Confident and assured, subtle and unshowy, the music was engrossing. They started off with several pieces from a suite and finished with a piece called “Iron Pyrites” apparently abstracted from a Stone Roses’ tune (with any of the Roses elements well and truly disposed of), and in between played a wealth of exciting music.
Arguelles was helped by his band – Kit Downes on piano, Sam Lasserson on bass and James Maddren on drums. Downes is always a pleasure and Maddren, who regularly plays in Downes’ trio, was a revelation – he could let rip in the less intimate, amplified setting. Together, the quartet were an excellent unit.
This was a wonderful gig, one of my favourites of the Festival, and I’m looking forward to seeing Arguelles again in Playtime’s Fringe programme on August 20!
My main reason for coming to this gig was to see drummer Dennis Chambers, so I was a little miffed when it was announced that he had been taken ill, and Derico Watson (of whom I’d not heard) would be taking his place. More fool me.
Watson was phenomenal, and one would never guess he’d had so little preparation. The rest of the band were pretty good, too, producing enjoyable music (some might say fusion with Stern’s electric guitar and Tom Kennedy’s electric bass – but the jazz chops were evident throughout, and there was some mighty swinging drumming from Watson) across two long sets.
Evans playing was excellent, and both he and Stern looked like they were having a ball. Compatriots from Miles Davis’ band of the early eighties (perhaps not Miles’ finest period), they played a blend of each other’s tunes, Evans’ perhaps more solid jazz and Stern’s a bit rockier.
Evans spoke warmly and at length of his previous experiences in Edinburgh, particularly with SNJO (he appears on their latest CD). The crowd, in turn, loved this band, giving them a standing ovation.