Category Archives: Theatre

“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.

Maxine Peake as “Hamlet”. March, 2015.

I saw Maxine Peake play Hamlet today, in a screening of Royal Exchange Theatre’s production.

It wasn’t cinema (though I was watching in a cinema), it wasn’t theatre (though it was filmed in a theatre).

The acting was superb. Peake was amazing – as were all the cast, actually.

It looked amazing – superb staging, and excellently captured on film. The way the set worked, and the lighting transformed the stage, was amazing.

It was way too long. I have long though Shakespeare needed an editor, and that was emphasised today – the first “half” came in at over two hours, the second at over an hour.

The strange way that Shakespearian language works by osmosis – if you stop and ask “what was just said?”, you can’t answer, but you know the meaning, if not the words – was the same as in the theatre.

I have not been to any stage production in the cinema before, and I’m not sure if it wholly works. Theatre demands more attention than cinema; cinema works in a different way. One’s “willing suspension of disbelief” is far greater in the theatre, and it took longer for that magic to work, watching the theatre in a cinema.

Peake was totally convincing as Hamlet. The rest of the cast were switched in terms of gender, too, and that was fine – completely irrelevant. Race too. It didn’t matter – the acting made it completely believable.

All in all, a very good way of watching a performance I would otherwise not be able to see. But neither theatre nor cinema – instead a kind of bastard hybrid, that works to the strength of neither medium.

And Maxine Peake is wonderful, and inhabited the role of Hamlet totally.

“The James Plays”. Edinburgh International Festival, August 2014.

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.)

“War Horse”. Edinburgh, February 2014. (…with spoilers!)

I saw the National Theatre’s production of War Horse a couple of weeks ago; it was a moving, haunting experience. And surprising, too: I would not have believed how quickly one could empathise with what are basically puppets. The operators got a standing ovation at the curtain call.
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Fringe. August 2013.

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival starts this weekend. Perhaps you’ve noticed the wall-to-wall media coverage. From now until early September, Edinburgh will be full of people visiting from London to watch other people visiting from London perform.

It has made me realise that I have never “done” the Fringe.

Which is not to say that I have never been to a Fringe show. Quite the opposite. When I first moved to Edinburgh in 1982, I spent the summer working with a student theatre company; the next four Fringes I either worked doing tech for a student company or front of house for a theatre club (it was a club in order to get around safety regulations, I think; membership was signing away various rights. Plus it allowed them to have a late licence the rest of the year, too. Either way, because it was a club meant that they had to employ students – like me – to ensure that people coming in were members) – some years, both.

When I returned to live and work in Edinburgh in the 1990s, I would go to many Fringe show each year, though my enthusiasm for the Fringe was quickly replaced by that for the Festival proper (generally much more interesting and reliable than the Fringe – and better value).

No, I have been to a great many Fringe performances; but I have never “done” the Fringe as the many, many tourists do. Cramming in five or six shows a day, queuing for tickets and returns, crowding into the Royal Mile, and spending the rest of the time in the pub.

And frankly, I never will!