The James Plays
In Rep till Oct 29, 2014
London SE1 9PX
7.30, mats Sats 2pm, Sun 3pm, Oct 25 all in one day (sold out);
See website for details:
And for Audio-described and Captioned perfs
TICKETS 020 7452 3000
In person: Mon– Sat, 9.30am-8pm
The James Plays, a co-production with National Theatre of Scotland and the Edinburgh International Festival.
Review by Carole Woddis of performances seen Sept 25, 2014
Thrilling and impressive: a full-length feature and review
A mighty undertaking, superbly achieved. National Theatre of Scotland’s three James’ plays are a reminder that Shakespeare no longer has the monopoly on historical epics.
Rona Munro’s clever, ancient and modern, free version of events and political machinations in Scotland before the Union with England (she freely admits she has played a bit fast and loose with Scotland’s history) could hardly come at a more pertinent time.
These three plays about the medieval, 15th century Scottish kings, James I, II and III – not to be confused with how we English like to refer to James VI as James the First – were prepared and launched at the Edinburgh Festival in August this year before the Referendum. What kind of response they must have inspired in the Scottish heart can only be imagined.
For, even now, they stir an English heart, in post Referendum London because they so tellingly speak of nationhood, leadership and a nation’s identity.
Like Shakespeare’s Histories – of which there are numerous echoes, from Richard II through to the Henry VIs – they also speak of rites of passage, of sibling rivalries, of bloody battlefields, familial conflict, generational tensions between father and sons and personal betrayal. In short, of the bloody business of life and legacy.
Unlike the Shakespeares – and all the more refreshing for that – they also explore far more extensively and fully the female side of things whether it be in the bed-chamber or in the Privy Council.
All three plays, like the Wars of the Roses can stand alone. But all three, too, gain additional purchase if seen in one day as they were in London this past week. Yet all three plays have their own time frame and individual atmospheres. So with the James I, we find banks of straw, edging the wood and scaffolding permanent set, to give a sense of Scotland, even at the higher reaches of society, as rough hewn, barely civilised.
Over the sixty year span the plays cover, the set acquires a little more – though not much – more decoration. By James III, there are brocades and a white rose garden, planted by James I in homage to his much loved wife, Joan of Beaufort (an echo here of the English Beauforts who loomed so large in English Middle Age history).
But what carries these plays so thrillingly forward is its amalgam of spirits: Munro’s earthy, often mischievous modernism; Sansom’s spare, muscular staging, the music (from a variety of sources) and the vigour and relaxation of the NTofS’s actors – subtly mic’ed – which allows them to act naturally without the shouting that so often afflicts English classical acting.
Most of all, of course, it is Munro’s narrative drive and the characters she creates from history that come alive before us. First amongst equals is James McArdle’s James I – a young monarch with a difficult beginning, imprisoned by the English for 18 years who on his return to Scotland (part of a cunning plan by the dying Henry V, here portrayed with little of the patriotic glow we’re used to seeing), has to find a way to tame unruly clan chiefs and in so doing forge a Scottish identity. His speech, growing into that recognition of who he is and what he represents is the highlight of the first two and half hours – if not of the entire project, so transcendently resonant Munro’s words, so modestly delivered by McArdle to such thunderous emotional effect.
McArdle is something special, his scenes with Stephanie Hyam’s youthful Joan, his young Beaufort wife intensely moving, full of a sense of a young wife in a strange land being subjected to some shockingly unwelcome customs – their consummating wedding night is a public affair, witnessed by `protective’ Lords crowded round the bed.
There is too a terrific sense of events happening simultaneously, of battles ensuing even as James and Joan are asleep in their bed, curled up in each other’s arms.
If James I has the stronger narrative pulse by virtue of a king maturing into kingship and his battle to convince Joan of his love and her acquiescence to his style and country of birth, James II imagines a kingship of minority, where a small boy – as in English history – becomes a pawn in the political game, a football to be bandied about.
Andrew Rothney’s James II suffers appalling nightmares after seeing his father assassinated – his adolescent anxieties transmitted here via puppets. Again, like Hal in Henry IV growing into Henry V, we see a young man painfully acquiring leadership skills, this time one seasoned by an intense friendship with William, the young son of the Douglas family.
James II is harder to grapple with, its writing less dense. But its gentler, more diaphanous atmosphere pays dividends in an extraordinarily gripping showdown between Rothney’s king and Mark Rowley’s William Douglas. William has saved James as a child; the two have sworn a lifelong bond of friendship paralleling the intensity of the political relationship between James II and the `Black Douglas’ family. Historically a thorn in James’ side – interpreted here with the full force of homoerotic yearning – William finally goads James into breaking his promise and killing the friend he once loved.
Munro’s greatest theatrical coup however is left to last. In the dangerously unpredictable, violently self-willed James III, we have echoes of Richard II and Edward II but ultimately there is nowhere in Shakespeare that presupposes a female monarch. Nor reading the extensive programme notes is there much precedence for as here, James III’s wife, the Scandinavian born Margaret (here played by the Danish – The Killing – actor, Sofie Grábøl) assuming power (although there does appear to have been a female Regent following James II’s death). But once again, Munro’s taking liberties finds huge contemporary resonance in Margaret’s admonishment and quietly stirring call to `not be afraid of walking out into an unknown future. Trust that and remember who you are. You can do it.’
Ultimately, like the Shakespeare Histories, Munro and National Theatre of Scotland show us the bloody edges of ambition and family ties. But they have also thrillingly dug deep into the domestic and personal as well as public domains to show us, in telling old stories, the creation of a new national identity.
Maybe, perhaps, one day, we can all be Scots, one day…
Company for James I, II, III:
Cameron Barnes: Big James Stewart, Ensemble, Ensemble
Daniel Cahill: Ensemble, Earl of Douglas, Jamie (eldest son of James & Margaret)
Ali Craig: Ensemble, Crichton, Sandy (King’s younger brother)
Blythe Duff: Isabella Stewart, Isabella Stewart, Annabella (the King’s aunt)
Nick Elliott: Ensemble, John Stewart, Ensemble
Peter Forbes: Balvenie, Balvenie (later Earl of Douglas),
Andrew Fraser: Ensemble, David Douglas (the Earl’s younger brother), Ross (middle son of James & Margaret); and Tam (member of household)
Sofie Grábøl: Margaret (wife to James III)
Sarah Higgins: Meg (lady at the Scottish Court), Meg, Ensemble
Stephanie Hyam: Joan (later wife to James I), Joan (mother to James II) and Mary (wife to James II), Ensemble
Gordon Kennedy: Murdac Stewart (Regent of Scotland), Livingston, John (Head of the Privy Council)
James McArdle: James I
Alasdair Macrae: Ensemble, Ensemble, Ensemble
David Mara: Ensemble, Hume (a Scottish Lord), Ensemble
Beth Marshall (Ensemble), Ensemble, Ensemble
Rona Morison: Ensemble, Annabella (the King’s Sister), Phemy (a Lady of the Court)
Andrew Rothney: Walter Stewart, James II, Cochrane (a Lord of the Court)
Mark Rowley: Alasdair Stewart, William Douglas (Balvenie’s son), Ramsay (King’s personal assistant)
Jamie Sives: Henry V, James III
Fiona Wood: Ensemble, Ensemble, Daisy (a laundress)
Daniel Cahill (Walter),
Ali Craig (James I/Big James),
Nick Elliott (Henry V),
Andrew Fraser (Alasdair Stewart),
David Mara (Murdac/Balvenie),
Beth Marshall (Isabella)
Rona Morison (Joan)
Fiona Wood (Meg)
Cameron Barnes (John Stewart),
Daniel Cahill (James II)
Nick Elliott (Crichton/Hume)
Andrew Fraser (William/Earl of Douglas),
David Mara (Livingston/Balvenie)
Beth Marshall (Isabella)
Rona Morison (Joan)
Fiona Wood (Meg/Mar/Annabella)
Cameron Barnes (Sandy)
Nick Elliott (James III)
Andrew Fraser (Jamie/Ramsay)
Sarah Higgins (Phemy/Daisy)
Stephanie Hyam (Tam/Ross)
Alasdair Macrae (Cochrane)
David Mara (John)
Beth Marshall (Annabella/Margaret)
Director: Laurie Sansom
Designer: Jon Bausor
Lighting Designer: Philip Gladwell
Movement Director: Neil Bettles
Music: JI & JII: Paul Leonard-Morgan
(JII – additional music from Boards of Canada albums Tomorrow’s Harvest, Geogaddi and Music Has the Right to Children)
JIII – Will Gregory
(`Robin’ composed by Will Gregory and Alasdair Macrae. Pre-show arrangements, additional arranging and hammered dulcimer by Alasdair Macrae)
Sound Designers: JI & JII: Christopher Shutt
JIII: Nick Sagar
Puppetry Director: Mervyn Millar
Puppet Designer: Mervyn Millar (for Significant Objects Ltd)
Fight Directors: Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown of RC-Annie Ltd
Associate/Staff Director: Amanda Gaughan
Associate Designer: Jean Chan
Associate Lighting Designer: Rob Casey
Associate Sound Designer (JI & JII): Nick Sagar
(Performing) Music Director: Alasdair Macrae
Company Voice Work: Jeannette Nelson
Casting NTGB: Charlotte Bevan
Casting NTS: Laura Donnelly
World premiere of The James Plays, Edinburgh International Festival, Aug 10, 2014
First performance in the Olivier, National Theatre, London, Sept 10, 2014
Part of the Travelex season