An Epic Trilogy of a Clash of Minds

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Rona Munro's The James Plays

Edinburgh International Festival | Edinburgh

directed by Laurie Sansom

With Scotland’s independence on the ballot cards, the National Theatres of Scotland and England have chosen a poignant moment to animate a more violently troubled interlude in the histories of the two countries. Rona Munro’s uneven but utterly thrilling trilogy of new full-length history plays races through violent, profound, and pivotal episodes from the lives of three successive kings of medieval Scotland. Weaving together her historical narrative with the words of Scottish poets Henryson, Dunbar and James I himself (author of The Kingis Quair), she interweaves clashing swords with language of lyrical delicacy and an imaginative eye for the stories of the less chronicled women who presided over these troubled courts.

Inevitably, the task she’s set herself has invited comparisons with Shakespeare, but these are more usefully sidestepped. These history plays don’t try to be compendious, and Munro has an arrow-sight focus on the parts of her story which will interest her audience – the rest are shot through or missed entirely.

Her approach is at its purest in James I, which rips through the young king’s story with the energy of a high-brow Braveheart. The cast are dressed in a familiar medieval mishmash of tight leather, padded coats and figure-girding medieval gowns, but their unbuttoned language casts off any attempt at period accuracy. The newly minted James I (James McArdle) is at the mercy of English King Henry V, who Jamie Sives plays with psychopathic, devious charisma. He’s affectionate one minute, then the next he’s snarling “do what I say or I’ll fucking have you.” He’s menacing enough to make laughing uncomfortable. James I is sent to master his new court – a castle stocked with the all-too-powerful Scottish nobles, the Stewarts, who clash swords and steal his silver as they chafe at losing their home. They can barely tolerate each other, so have no intention with putting up with their new king – raised in captivity in England before being thrown to the mercy of these warrior wolves.

But outside the noblemen’s crushing world of velvet robes and unvelveted fists there’s the quieter story of new Queen Joan’s reluctant, inspiringly resolved introduction into the Scottish court. Stephanie Hyam is heartbreakingly vulnerable, but with the strength to seek to itemise and bolster her new home into courtly order and sophistication. She’s disappointed to find that, as her outspoken new female retainer Meg (a boisterous Sarah Higgins) tells her, “we’re poorer than beetles in a rotten log.” James I’s faltering, never quite successful attempts to secure her love creates her a rose garden, and its cultivation becomes a metaphor for the growing security and cultural blossoming of the Scottish court through the years this trilogy covers.

No number of petals can keep Joan safe from her constant terror of James’s enemies in the court – the Stewart matriarch Isabella, played by a fantastically sinister Blythe Duff, is her especial adversary, bringing her a soup tureen full of dead chicks as a surreal threat as she lies pregnant with her son. This son, James II, is similarly and justifiably frightened, and his fears dominate the second play of the trilogy, which focuses on his troubled – aren’t they always troubled – regency.

Here Laurie Sansom’s direction takes on a psychological tone. James II holds a white-faced puppet representing his younger self, agonisingly reliving the murder of his father and his own survival. Munro’s ingeniously wrought text has already told us that trunks are good for hiding things in – Queen Joan is reluctantly persuaded so when she asks where the castle’s wardrobes are – and here she hides first her secrets then her son in the huge wooden box at the foot of her bed.

James II (Andrew Rothney) is a living pawn or toy, like the puppet – dragged out of bed at night to lend childish divine power to meetings of nobles, or told to “sign it and shut up” by his omnipotent advisor Crichton. But on Holy Innocents' Day this worm turns, desperate to play football with his bored witless Queen Mary. She’s a disconcertingly playful 15, and unhappy to be away from the more sophisticated diversions of the French court. But Scotland is a dangerous place, where her playful pounce on a noble’s shoulder is met with a hastily withdrawn sword. Where James I develops from quiet poetry-writing intellectual to inspiring leader to Machiavellian solidifier of the throne, though, James II’s arc is less satisfying. He's scarred by a vermilion birthmark, which he explains away by a series of vignettes from his dangerous childhood – he isn’t allowed to grow up by history or this play, which cuts off his story just as he becomes king proper.

This second play is an inconclusive one, feeling like a bridge between the historical tightness of the first and the fresh modern looseness to follow. The interval that follows it is an unceremonious loosening of girdles and unbuckling of armour, as the actors dance to Ceilidh-ified versions of Lorde’s Royals and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way.

It’s a reminder that they’re one company performing on an epic scale; eight and a half hours in one day. But it’s also an indicator of the nearly contemporary setting of James III, which steps and reels around the issue of Scottish independence on delicately arched feet.

Jamie Sives returns to play James III as a compellingly whimsical ruler with the kind of mad, inspired energy that turns to fury when thwarted – from ecstasy to execution in seconds. His latest whim is to be followed everywhere by a choir, despite the poverty of his Scottish court which still must pay huge taxes to England when it’s not actively at war with them.

Munro is fascinated by the court that grew and refined itself under James III’s erratic stewardship. Unlike his forefathers, he neglected touring to dispense justice in regional courts in favour of planting himself squarely in Edinburgh.

Jon Bausor’s design paints the formerly rough wood walls with a damask design of roses – James I's garden, planted for his beauty-starved new wife all those years ago. Nobles no longer whip out swords at the slightest provocation, and their ladies have started bathing in heated tubs. Their cruelties have refined, too. James III is quarrelling with his wife, Margaret of Denmark, who objects to his ill-hidden string of mistresses. In an ingeniously apt bit of celebrity casting, this third and strongest foreign queen is played by Danish Sofie Gråbøl, best known as a tough detective in television series The Killing. When her husband brings her a newly imported mirror to try and unseat her bold self-confidence, she’s delighted, not traumatised, by looking at her ageing face. Moreover, she uses it to torment and scare away his younger mistress with tales of how temporary what looks they have will be. It’s an uncomfortable scene – and Munro’s final play here is full of such faintly surreal, symbolic reflections.

They culminate in a showpiece assembly scene, where Margaret gathers and rallies this most recent batch of perennially squabbling Scottish nobles to discuss the future of the state that James III is no longer able to lead. It's an excuse for Munro to crystallise all the questions and ideas about Scottish identity that she's strewed through the trilogy so far – and to hint about the viability of an independent Scotland, from the perspective of a time when James III was pursuing a deeply unpopular alliance with England. “Face it, they're leaving us,” says one English delegate, but Munro's text doesn't take sides in this masked referendum. Under Margaret's temporary but powerful leadership, the violent disputes of decades past soften into a distinctly Scottish style of debate – pragmatic, plain, but with an alchemical edge of whimsy that turns violence to wit.

Munro’s three eras don’t fade and meld into each other like one long tapestry. Instead each has a completely distinct texture, leaving the figures which reappear from one to the next faintly lost and out of style. Mad Isabella is a powerless anachronism in James II’s court, fit only to terrify a child. And French Queen Mary exists only to be gently delighted by the civilising influences which have filled it, long after she’s lost her crown. This trilogy starts with a clash of swords and ends with a clash of minds, as the court debates its own existence, instead of just fighting to preserve it at all costs. The vast sword shadowing the stage is a clumsy touch, but points to the blade-edge between order and chaos these three success kings live on – the fragility of the Scottish state, just as it seeks to shift a delicate balance once more.

photo | ©Manuel Harlan

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