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.)