THE JAMES PLAYS: Rona Munro.
Theatre Royal: Tkts 0115 989 5555 www.royalcentre-nottingham.co.uk.
Run: James I 2h 30m, James II 2h30m, James III 2h 40m: each play has one interval: till 12th June.
Performance times: 11.00am, 3.00pm and 7.30pm.
Review: Alan Geary: 11th June 2016.
Compelling stuff, with some fine acting
You don’t need to be well up on your Scottish history for this trilogy. These are stand-alone plays about people and families, which dip in and out of real history as writer Rona Munro’s intentions dictate; and for dramatic effect some actual events are changed or ignored. There’s very little overlap of characters across the three plays; interestingly, most of the few who do carry a personal memory of events from one play to the next are women.
James III falls into a somewhat different genre from the others, with contemporary Scottish music and dance to add to the fun, and vaguely twentieth-century costuming. But it’s the same adaptable set for each, dominated by a giant sword stuck in the stage. Some of the audience are seated at the back of the action, with gives the whole experience something of the feel of theatre in the round.
The first and the third plays are better than the second, though all have earthy, realistic and immediate language, fine acting and splendid moments.
They were written and are being performed in the shadow of the recent independence referendum but, commendably, there’s no attempt to ram any particular political stance home. What does come over though is that in a country with no culture of democracy and the rule of law, a strong and ruthless autocrat is surely preferable to bloody chaos.
A high point in James I is the scene where the King (Steven Miller) and Joan (Rosemary Boyle) meet for the first time before their arranged marriage; so is the one where the couple kneel at the altar whispering to one another, trying not to let the Archbishop overhear what they’re saying. Then there’s Isabella Stewart’s (Blythe Duff) anguish at the execution of her sons –all three plays involve a lot of, tastefully done, violence. (And sex too; near the very end of the trilogy there’s an arguably gratuitous full male nude scene).
James, who is trying to assert his authority over his uncouth and lawless lords, makes a moving speech to them at one point. And Matthew Pidgeon, as a very un-Shakespearean and down to earth Henry V of England, is first-rate.
In James II, the least engaging of the trilogy, there’s too much of James getting into and jumping out of a box in which he’s often in hiding from those out to get him. And the play is also heavily wordy, though it improves post-interval. The scenes involving Balvenie Douglas (Peter Forbes) and his son William (Andrew Still) are delightfully touching.
The real protagonist in James III, a very feminist play, is Margaret (a super performance from Malin Crépin), shipped over from Denmark to marry James. It’s a wonderful moment when some of the characters, most notably Margaret, see themselves for the first time in a mirror, a new invention from Venice, and each realises her full potential. After the King’s violent death Margaret goes on to become a better ruler than he ever was.
The James Plays are a long haul, especially if you see all consecutively on the same day, but there’s a handsome payback. They might not always be truly great theatre but they’re almost always compelling.
Joan/Mary/Ensemble: Rosemary Boyle.
Alisdair/Earl of Douglas/Jamie: Daniel Cahill.
Big James/Hume/John/Ensemble: Ali Craig.
Margaret: Malin Crépin.
Isabella/Annabella (James III): Blyth Duff.
John Stewart/Ensemble: Nicholas Elliott.
Davy/Ramsay/Ensemble: Andrew Fraser.
Balvenie: Peter Forbes.
Annabella (James II)/Phemy/Ensemble: Danni Heron.
Tam/Musician/Ensemble: Brian James O’Sullivan
Ensemble: Sian Mannifield.
Crichton/Musician/Ensemble: David Mara.
James I/Sandy/Ensemble: Steven Miller.
Musician/Ensemble: Calum Morrison.
Henry V/James III: Matthew Pidgeon.
Meg/Ensemble: Sally Reid.
Walter/James II/Cochrane: Andrew Rothney.
Murdac/Livingstone: John Stahl.
William Douglas/Ross/Ensemble: Andrew Still.
Daisy/Ensemble: Fiona Wood.
Director: Laurie Sansom.
Set/Costume Designer: John Bausor.
Lighting Designer: Philip Gladwell.
Movement Director: Neil Bettles.
Sound Designers: Christopher Shutt/Nick Sagar.
Composers: Paul-Leonard Morgan/Will Gregory.
Fight Directors: Rachel Brown-Williams/Ruth Cooper-Brown.