Monday, 18 August 2014

The James Plays, Edinburgh International Festival

Review of  "The James Plays" - National Theatre of Scotland, National Theatre of Great Britain. Edinburgh Festival Theatre, August 2014

  • James I : The Key Will Keep The Lock

  • James II : Day of the Innocents

  • James III : The True Mirror

As I never had much time this year to drag myself along the M8 from Glasgow to visit the Edinburgh Festival or Fringe, I decided to splurge and in one day try to take in all three of "The James Plays". A co-production between the National Theatres of Scotland and of Great Britain the plays have been written by Rona Munro, as stand-alone plays telling the story of three generations of Scotland's Stewart dynasty. At this time, a month ahead of our independence referendum in Scotland, I think it is important we take the time to look back to see how we got to where we are today, before deciding where we go next. This isn't just a principle of Karl Marx's historical materialism, but a fairly universal aphorism. 

"Life is divided into three terms - that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future"  - William Wordsmith
 Like most people, I imagine, I know next to nothing about these three kings. Monarchy-wise I know that there was a Duncan and a Macbeth in the 11th century thanks to William Shakspeare, then I'm a bit vague on details for a couple of hundred years. Later you've Robert the Bruce and Bannockburn in 1314. Shortly afterwards you had the Stewart kings. Often I pass a sign proclaiming Renfrew as the ancient home of the Stewarts, the one-time "stewards of Scotland".

Plaque on a wall in Renfrew
Again I'm a bit vague here on the details, but presume that we had five kings called James before we got to Mary, Queen of Scots. Next of course was "James the VI of Scotland and First of England" and the joining of the monarchy on these isles in 1603. Amidst all of that we have Catholic and Protestant conflict, and various ebbing and flowing of allegiances between Denmark, France, England and others, all jockeying for control.

Scotland was a feudal society, which Marx described as the stage after a slave society. An aristocracy ruled the people, inheriting their position and marrying or conquering to gain or retain power. There was religious rule, inherited classes and inherited social standing. Nation states were forming from the remains of fallen empires.

The Great Hall at Linlithgow Palace,
built during the reign of James I

So I think that for most of us we come to hear about James I, II and III without many pre-conceptions about these men. The point of these "James plays" is not to re-tell the history of ancient kings though. I've recently been reading some poems by Greek poet C.P. Cavafy and of the Egyptian, Caesarion, he writes 

"History reserves/ but a few lines for you,and so I fashioned you more freely in my mind."

 The next line says "I made you fair and sensitive". So playwright Rona Munro gets to chose the characters for her kings. As Shakespeare did with his monarchs, you have a few bare facts to hang a story and a character upon, what you do with it is in the hands of the playwright.

James I : The Key Will Keep The Lock 

James I

James I lived from 1394 to 1437 and was King of Scotland from 1406. With both of his older brothers dead by the time he was eight years old, he was being taken to France for his safety. En route he was captured and spent 18 years a prisoner of the English kings, Henry IV and V, becoming King of Scotland on his father's death when aged 13 years old. When he was returned to Scotland, under ransom, with his English Queen, it is apparent that he was not universally welcomed. James McArdle plays James I and Blythe Duff is Isabella Stewart. She and Gordon Kennedy are two amongst several of the actors who have roles across all three plays.

The Scottish prisoners who are on stage at the opening of the play chant like football supporters. I liked the fact that football gets a mention in every play. The mocking cheers of the Scottish nobles in the throne room as the crown comes down on the head of this king, newly arrived from England, echo the "whooooooooOOOOOAAAH" we give an opposition goalkeeper gets when he kicks out a goal kick. The king is greeted with suspicion by the conniving lords of Scotland, but wins them over with his ideals of the country he envisages. But he and his ideals become crushed by bloody realpolitik.

James tells them he "had an education in England. I learned history." In a speech that recalls the words of  Robert Burns in "Such a Parcel of Rogues In a Nation" he warns us to beware English gold. "Then they'll flick us a coin of our own stolen gold and call it charity".

It's a fast paced story, with the hesitant young king evolving into the man he became.

James II : Day of the Innocents

James II

When his father James I was killed, his son James was 6 years old. James II lived from 1430-1460 and the only fact which I knew about him for some reason was the method of his rather ignominious death. Glasgow University was founded during his reign in 1451 and his interest in the latest artillery brought Mons Meg to Scotland. Andrew Rothney plays James II and Mark Rowley is William Douglas. The young king is literally a puppet on stage as the Earls of Scotland vie for control through him. This time a football game is used to extract the king away from his competing nobles by his friend William Douglas , but the two sides on the pitch will end up opposing each other later.

The play gets weighed down a bit on unpicking the threads of conspiracy and retribution here and when the king's childhood friend becomes the latest Earl of Douglas, his character hasn't been given enough space to breathe and mature, to explain his later opposition to James. I liked the wee nod to the ensemble cast when Blythe Duff's imprisoned Isabella Stewart sees King James. She says to him "You remind me of my son Walter" who the same actor had played in the earlier play.

James III : The True Mirror

James III

James III lived from 1451 to 1488 and reigned as king from age nine. James Sives plays the King and Danish actress Sofie Gråbøl, known for her role in The Killing, plays Queen Margaret of Denmark. This marriage led to the Orkney and Shetland islands becoming part of Scotland. The play opens with the actors arriving on stage and dancing to a "heedrum hodrum" version of Lady Gaga amongst other songs as the audience drift in. The stage set has gradually changed across the three plays. The huge sword stuck into the stage has now been buffed and polished, like the royal court, but the worn saltire that criss-crosses the stage floor is still visible. Part of the audience has sat on tiered seats behind the stage throughout, as jury or parliament observing the actions. As the rule of King James III becomes more unpopular and chaotic the focus of the story is upon his wife. She shows what contribution outsiders, newly arrived from abroad and having first to learn the language, can bring to a country. In her rousing speech to parliament to rally the country she also has parts of the audience cheering and clapping along. In the most clear reference to the referendum she pleads with the country to stop moaning and act.
 "You know the problem with you lot? You've got fuck-all except attitude. You scream and shout about how you want things done and how things ought to be done and when the chance comes look at you! What are you frightened of? Making things worse? According to you things couldn't get worse for Scotland!"
Queen Margaret is one of several strong female characters running through the plays and seeing the three plays together you see these threads, the recurring metaphors and plot lines. Gordon Kennedy is born to play medieval lords, Blythe Duff was excellent throughout and Sofie Gråbøl was the stand out performer in the last play, which had the Taggart and The Killings leading ladies playing off against each other.

Some reviews have bemoaned the fact that the actors speak in a modern way, with much cursing and swearing. I love the idea that, like sex, swearing is something that people only started doing recently. The playwright anticipates this criticism and answers it by the words of French-born Queen Joan in the first play.
"Well, how am I supposed to understand something if you put it in a poem! Why can't anyone here ever say anything in plain words!?"

It was a really fantastic day of theatre. The cast, the music (some Boards of Canada in there?), the stage set, direction and the plays. Historical plays resonating with the present day. Theatre seems to be a place where ideas and issues can be aired at present, particularly important as politicians seem to have abandoned this role (Glasgow Girls by Cora Bisset and Benjamin Zephaniah's Refugee Boy both dealt with the issue of asylum seekers on stage more lucidly than any politician has). For looking at our history at this important time the National Theatre of Scotland is to be praised.

With medieval football running through the three plays, I quite liked the complaint midweek from National Theatre of Scotland that Real Madrid fans had hijacked their #JamesPlays hashtag when James Rodriguez made his debut.

A final thought. Apart from James I, II and III being medieval Kings of Scotland they also, whilst heir to the throne, held the titles of Duke of Rothesay and Baron of Renfrew. If you think that hereditary entitlement seems weird, anachronistic and incongruous in the 21st century, I would remind you that the person currently holding the titles of Duke of Rothesay and Baron of Renfrew is the possible future King of Scotland; Prince Charles.

600 years later we STILL have a Duke of Rothesay
and Baron of Renfrew. Weird, huh?

1 comment:

  1. A really interesting write up to the productions. We're tickled pink that you enjoyed the trilogy. Well spotted, there is Boards of Canada music used in the trilogy. Let's just hope Rodriguez stays off the pitch until we're through with the run! Thanks for joining us.