Monday, April 25, 2016

The James Plays (The Lowry, Salford Quays)

Who needs William Shakespeare or George R R Martin when we've got Rona Munro? By focusing on the lives of three lesser-known Scottish kings, Munro has tapped into the current zeitgeist for sword and sorcery, blood and guts, and heart-in-mouth political skulduggery made popular by Game of Thrones.

It's easy to compare The James Plays with Martin's world-conquering book and TV series (something the publicity does with glee), but the fact is, the stories told in these plays are scarier and more thrilling because it's all true. It actually happened. And like so many periods in British history, it's much more interesting than fiction.

Munro has chosen not to write biographies of these three men, but rather zoom in on a particular aspect or period in their life stories, and dramatise and expand upon it to astounding effect. The first play, James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock, is probably the most satisfying of the trilogy, telling the story of how James I went from being a boy prisoner of the English King Henry V, to crowned King of Scots. James learnt a lot from his upbringing in the English court, and wished to use this knowledge and education to reform Scotland. His ideas for reformed governance and taxation were modeled on what he'd seen working in England, but it took some convincing of the Scottish clansmen and lairds to adopt these new systems. Dictating that collected rents and taxes should pass to the royal household rather than the landowners was a highly controversial move, and made James few friends. His attempts to broker peace between the warring landowners was doomed from the start, but at least this idealist king tried, purely through a devotion to his homeland.

Steven Miller is endearing as the thoughtful, patient prisoner king who blossoms into the beginnings of a fine ruler before his decision to start executing his rivals begins to unravel his good work. Miller is sensitive and likeable as a man who can see a better way for Scotland to move forward, but who is hampered at every turn by a populace that does not want to change that easily. Rosemary Boyle, making her professional stage debut as Queen Joan, is the ace up the sleeve of this production. She's a whirlwind of energy in her first appearance as she tries to make preparations for the arrival of not one, but two kings to her court. Boyle is funny and fresh, a naturalistic actor who comes across clearly in her role, and is certainly a rising talent to watch.

Steven Miller as James I
Sally Reid is a ball of joy and Gaelic charm as Meg, sent to Joan to brief her on what life will be like when she marries James and moves to Scotland to live. She paints a romantic picture of her homeland pricked by thorns of truth. She can't promise sun or apples or castles, but there will be singing and dancing and fish fresh from the stream!

There's also a formidable turn from Blythe Duff as Isabella Stewart, and a scene between her and Boyle's pregnant Joan that is as tense as anything in Game of Thrones. Isabella sits beside the vulnerable Joan on her bed, idly wielding a dagger and talking of the dangers of being a woman in feudal Scotland. Isabella wants Joan dead, it is clear, but she doesn't say as much, or do anything directly to bring it about. She simply menaces, and with such unsettling glee. All Joan wants is to be safe, adrift as she is as a simple English princess in a strange and dangerous land. Her culinary and project management talents are wasted on the Scots!

The relationship between James and Henry is subtly played by Miller and Matthew Pidgeon. Yes, Henry V was an utter bastard, but he was an effective mentor for the king-in-waiting. The scene where James tries to make Henry see the error in destroying his subjects' land on a whim is well played, with some refreshingly modern dialogue to carry it through.

James I goes from exile to reformer to tyrant, and while we don't see his demise played out on stage, it's obvious where his story is headed. After a rousing battle scene where combat is choreographed as beautifully as a dance routine, we are told by Isabella that the wheel will turn. Another James waits in the wings.

While James II: Day of the Innocents might be some people's least favourite of the trilogy (it's much darker and almost devoid of humour), it actually has the most compelling human story. While the book-ending plays are mostly concerned with the James' suitability to rule, James II focuses more on the making of the man than the king. James II was just six when his father was killed and the Scottish throne awaited his majority. Blemished with a vermilion birthmark on his face, James has night terrors about his troubled childhood - he hides in a trunk, a boyhood retreat he carries through into adulthood, and is haunted by being abandoned by both his mother Joan (who seeks her safety in the arms of another) and his sister Annabella, who disappears off to France looking for a husband.

The one constant in his life is his childhood friend William Douglas. As boys they looked after each other, but with adulthood comes friction, and grown-up preoccupations such as property, wealth and influence. When William's father dies he becomes head of his considerable estate, but this power goes to William's head somewhat, and when James sends him away to Rome, relations between the two friends crumble.

Andrew Rothney as James II and
Andrew Still as William Douglas
Andrew Rothney and Andrew Still play off one another well as James and William, but it is Still who steals the show in his portrayal of William's unhinged unravelling. The relationship between the two is expertly written and crafted, with hints at a possible romantic attraction between them which is never directly addressed. There's the slightest of moments when James cups William's cheek, their eyes briefly meet, and there's the slimmest of silences between them which is beautifully played by the two actors. It's easy to miss, but it speaks volumes about both the characters, and the performers' skills.

This play is more EastEnders than Game of Thrones. It's a story of two lads who grow up and then apart, and it's their love for one another as brothers (and perhaps more), as well as each boy's pretty damaging upbringing, which forms the heart and soul of the play.

Both Acts of James III: The True Mirror open with the cast dancing along to traditional arrangements of modern pop songs, including the Human League's Don't You Want Me, Lady Gaga's Born This Way and Pharrell Williams's Happy. Make no mistake, this is a brilliant bit of artistic flair on the part of director Laurie Sansom and musician Alasdair Macrae and complements the slightly modernised costume design from Jon Bausor in this third play. These opening routines are pure joy.

Matthew Pidgeon portrays this King of Scots as a Bacchanalian reveller, a cross between John Hurt's Caligula from I, Claudius and Hugh Laurie's Prince Regent from Blackadder. This is the 1470s, these are "modern" times. We see a more refined Scotland, one where James I's parliamentary dreams have come to fruition, although James III is no fan of the ennui of politics.

Matthew Pidgeon as James III
The court of James III echoes the trappings of Ancient Rome. He lounges around on cushions, he'll sleep with anyone (male and female) and cultivates a love of good wine (but not the 1474!). Pidgeon plays James as utterly in love with being king, but at odds with the tedium that comes with it. He cares not for his kingdom, only his kingship. He has no particular desire to defend Scotland from the invading English ("They'll get us in the end"). There is madness in Pidgeon's heavily kohlled eyes and a wanton abandon in his demeanour.

This third play combines the incident and humour of the first with the personal storytelling of the second. James simply wants to enjoy being ruler. He loves art and culture, he appreciates architecture and poetry. He even employs a small choir to follow him round, ordering them to sing to soften the blow of life's hardships. James also fears his heir. In James (who will be IV) he sees his own demise. The fact his eldest son will replace him on the throne both scares and appalls him. This life of reverie must end. He ignores his son, and is happy for him to go and live with his estranged wife Margaret of Denmark, because to have him around his royal court would only remind him of his own transience.

The second half of this play is all about the women. Munro has done a fantastic job of bringing out the women in the lives of these three kings. Too often women are lost in history, remembered only as wives and child-bearers, so it's wonderful to see figures like Joan, Margaret and Isabella Stewart fleshed out and given vital roles to play. Munro has also taken some liberties with established history in this third play, placing the educated, intelligent and beautiful Margaret front and centre as a key influential figure. In truth, although Margaret is widely acknowledged as being far better qualified to rule than James was, it's debatable she had the level of influence she is shown as having here. She should have, there's no doubt about it, but Munro's dramatic licence is well and truly brought into play here.

Matthew Pidgeon as James III and
Malin Crepin as Margaret
Swedish actor Malin Crepin is beguiling in the role, exuding grace and intelligence in equal measure, sparkling in the scene where she sees herself in a mirror for the first time. She is not appalled by her countenance, as the trouble-making James hopes, but is instead enthralled and impressed by what she sees. "I like this woman!" she proclaims with pride. Indeed, the woman she sees reflected back at her is someone she would like to spend time with. Margaret is undoubtedly one of the best written and played characters of the entire trilogy.

The third play hands the baton to a fourth production which has not yet been written. Daniel Cahill plays the emerging James IV as a man affected by the actions of his insouciant father. He strips naked on stage and wraps a spiked chain around his body, remembering what his mother told him, that what we wear against our skin should reflect the person we are. The presence of James IV here is a cruel reminder that there isn't a second trilogy to get our teeth into. There needs to be. Someone needs to commission Rona Munro forthwith.

The James Plays can be seen individually, but are best seen collectively, and in one day if possible. You get the most out of each if you've seen the other two. They are a towering accomplishment for Rona Munro, and the National Theatre of Scotland. What Munro has written is the Shakespeare of our day. These plays are funny, moving, touching and unnerving. They are educational, both in the way they depict a period in history seldom talked about, but also in the way they reflect the age we live in. They show a Scotland in flux, modernising and refining itself, just as it is today. The James Plays ultimately point to a time when Scotland will lose its independence, but watching them today, when Scotland is gradually reclaiming itself again, makes all the more powerful and truthful.

The stats
Writer: Rona Munro
Director: Laurie Sansom
Cast: Rosemary Boyle (Joan/ Mary/ ensemble); Daniel Cahill (Alasdair Stewart/ Earl of Douglas/ James IV); Ali Craig (Big James Stewart/ Hume/ John/ ensemble); Malin Crepin (Margaret of Denmark); Blythe Duff (Isabella Stewart/ Annabella); Nicholas Elliott (John Stewart/ ensemble); Andrew Fraser (Davy Douglas/ Ramsay/ ensemble); Peter Forbes (Balvenie); Dani Heron (Annabella/ Phemy); Brian James O'Sullivan (Tam/ ensemble); Sian Mannifield (ensemble); Steven Miller (James I/ Crichton/ Sandy); Calum Morrison (ensemble/ musician); Matthew Pidgeon (Henry V/ James III); Sally Reid (Meg/ ensemble); Andrew Rothney (Walter Stewart/ James II/ Cochrane); John Stahl (Murdac Stewart/ Livingston); Andrew Still (William Douglas/ Ross/ ensemble); Fiona Wood (Daisy; ensemble)
Performed at The Lowry, Salford Quays, April 23rd to 24th, 2016. Performances reviewed: April 23rd, 2016.

The James Plays on National Theatre of Scotland website (retrieved Apr 25 2016)
The James Plays on The Lowry website (retrieved Apr 25 2016)
Rona Munro on The James Plays (retrieved Apr 25 2016)
The James Plays 2016 tour trailer (retrieved Apr 25 2016)

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