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Theatre Review: The James Plays

12 June 16 words: Dom Henry
A gloriously enthralling three play back-to-back history binge

The James Plays - National Theatre of Scotland - production photo

If a little wary of what a whole day theatre-athon would be like, I was quick to discover just how gloriously enthralling a three play back-to-back history binge could be in this epic production by the National Theatre of Scotland

Over three plays we are immersed in the story of three generations of Scottish Kings covering most of the 1400s. Their often dark and bloody family and cross border struggles to gain and retain power, delivered in vivid detail by a 20 strong cast in proper ‘Scots’ with plenty of swearing.

Steven Miller plays a poetry loving James I, his difficult years as an English hostage (the Scot's wouldn't pay the ransom) helping develop a strong sense of kingly duty. His son James II (Andrew Rothney) becomes emotionally scarred by a terrible childhood spent as a power pawn amongst squabbling nobles. Finally, a more established James III (Matthew Pidgeon) rules as an irresponsible king of privilege, more concerned with having decadent fun than managing his kingdom.

Laurie Sansom’s stark yet cleverly lit set has the feel of a medieval arena, with lucky audience members looking down from onstage galleries into the action packed courtyard, all of which dominated by an huge two storey sword embedded in it’s floor, reminding us the threat of violence is never far away.

The James Plays - National Theatre of Scotland - production photo

James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock
The first installment sees a young James I returned to Scotland after 18 years of life as an English hostage, direct from the battle weary hands of a dying Henry V. He arrives in a suspicious homeland with his new young English wife and faces an uphill task to find his way amongst the great families and clans who control the fuedal kingdom. Much sympathy also for his wife Joan, frightened and out of place, especially on their wedding night with an audience of Scotland's great lords who sleep in the same room. Seeing his ideals of Scottish nationhood and the duty of nobles and kings falling onto deaf clan ears, James I soon finds that you have to do bad things if you want to stay king.

The James Plays - National Theatre of Scotland - production photo

James II: Day of the Innocents
James II follows the dark aftermath of his father’s bloody death, becoming King aged just six. The wee young king (Daniel Cahill) spends much of his time cowering in boxes in the merciless control of his father’s killers, the Scottish lords who now seek to manipulate him. Growing up struggling with mental scars and nightmares he gradually learns to find his feet and authority as King. Only to faces a serious dilemma as his close but manic childhood friend William Douglas (Andrew Still) inherits his father’s mighty Earldom and starts flexing his muscles.

James III: The True Mirror
The final play joins the more established reign of arts friendly James III, where the threat of immediate violence has settled down and national and family politics mostly play out in court. However, James' vanity and foppish desires take precedence over governing his kingdom, playboy habits and wine tasting win out over parliamentary duties.

The James Plays - National Theatre of Scotland - production photo

The only thing keeping the increasingly unsettled Scottish Lords at Parliament at bay is his clever Danish Queen Margaret (played by a superb Maline Crepin), whose talent at balancing the books and keeping the country running, even after a split, has the immature Dandy King wearing outrageous clothes with his accompanying chorus for way longer than he deserves.

When it eventually ends in bloodshed and tears it is her wit and outsider perspective that steadies the rowdy post battle parliament. “Who would want the job of ruling Scotland?” she demands. “I come from a rational nation of reasonable people. You’ve got fuck-all except attitude.” to much wry nodding from the Scots.

The James Plays - National Theatre of Scotland - production photo

It’s Rona Munro’s attention to detail of the peripheral characters that makes this play so rich. From the Douglas clan’s feisty Isabella to their loyal king’s servant Meg (Sally Reid), the touching insights into their relationships, hopes and dreams revealed through moments of daily life weaving colour into this rich medieval tapestry. All woven faultlessly by an impressive cast.

The plays are never shy of humour, often dark, with jibes and jokes aplenty amongst the main characters and the rowdy Scottish courtiers. There are even some witty numbers, including a fun Scots folk version of Pharrell WIlliams ‘Happy’ which help lighten the mood.

In the era of the Netflix series binge and HBO style high quality TV series this three part play sits really very well. While James I was arguably the best and liveliest of the three, the deeper psychological narrative of the second two is made engrossing thanks to your expanding back story knowledge of the previous shows.

Real game of thrones history, power politics, love, drama, and tragedy brought to life on stage with the depth of a multi part TV series. The 7 hours 45 minutes flew by with our total plot immersion hats on. Brilliant.

The James Plays are at Nottingham's Theatre Royal on Saturday 11 and Sunday 12 June 2016.


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