“The James Plays”. Edinburgh, January 2016.

Yesterday I had a bit of a theatre marathon, spending eight hours in the Festival Theatre watching all three of the National Theatre of Scotland’s James plays. I saw the previews of each play when they were performed in the Festival in 2014 – and I was very impressed.

With the same production returning to Edinburgh, I thought it would be interesting to see them in one go, to see how they’d changed in the interim and whether there was additional meaning to be gained from setting them together.


It was a very good idea: they benefited from a revisiting. The big themes of the plays – relationships, power, politics (public and private) clearly remained, but seeing them together emphasised the connections, particularly the way in which playwright Rona Munro presaged scenes in later plays in the earlier. She also repeated dialogue in each of the plays, short lines which appeared in each which had passed me by the first. (I can’t have been paying attention.)

The acting was superb throughout. The actor playing James ll damaged his ankle (I think) during the second half, and struggled on regardless; he hid his injury well: I didn’t notice until the curtain call, when he had to be helped on stage by his colleagues. Literally a supporting cast.

The first in the trilogy – James l – had been the least effective when I saw them first. A lot of the rough edges had been knocked off – the sense of trepidation or procrastination I had felt was completely absent this time. It was powerful and effective drama, even gripping.

James ll had significant changes to its staging, which whilst simplifying and clarifying the story left it less rich dramatically. The use of puppets to convey the actions of children, which was so effective in the original run, has been been dropped, and, to prevent confusion of adult actors playing children, there were specific mentions of the children’s ages. These might have been present in the original, though I don’t recall them, and they seemed very obvious this time around.

James lll, which I thought was the strongest of the plays originally, now seemed the weakest. Queen Margaret’s big speech which so impressed me before seemed much less potent – it held a negative, niggardly character now. I think some of it had been changed. I also believe the final scene had been added, too negative effect. (I’m not certain about this – but I had no recollection of the closing scene at all. A friend of mine who has both the original published and revised scripts has been set some homework to see what had changed…)

Of course, it might not be the plays that have changed: it might be me. In the highly politicised atmosphere of the run up to Scotland’s referendum on independence, perhaps I was more willing to accept polemic. Or, in the equally polarised debate around Scotland’s place in the union (particularly what seems to be toxic discussions on how to share finances), perhaps I’m simply interpreting Munro’s words in a different way, detecting a disappointment that isn’t really there. One of the plays’ themes – the stitching up of Scotland’s political future by a cabal of worthies – still seems apposite.


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