By Danielle Farrow
The James Plays
Rona Munro has created a trilogy of plays, which can each be viewed without the others, about the Scottish kings James I, James II and James III. Laurie Sansom directs this co-production by the National Theatre of Scotland, the Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre of Great Britain.
On a set framed by a semi-circle of raked seating for additional spectators, utilising the huge depth of the Festival Theatre stage and a useful trap door, the three stories about relationships of power, passion and rule unfold under the shadow of a towering sword, subtly changed for each play. This is a history cycle for Scotland, that was not initially planned for the referendum year, but certainly speaks to questions of independence and relationships with England and other countries.
James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock
‘The key will keep the lock and the thorny hedge the cow’ was James I’s promise to fight thievery in Scotland for all, regardless of status. The ideals of this king – taken prisoner by the English at aged 12 to wait 18 years for ransom – were formed by his early years in Scotland and his education in England. As James I, James McArdle plays a king determined to bring law and order to a realm where the powerful families are used to ruling in their own way.
His own Stewart cousins, supported by their mother Isabella, prove the least likely to accept James’ rule. He is an outsider, and they are used to power. He has also brought an English wife with him, Joan Beaufort, played by Stephanie Hyam. At first Joan seems a young lady of ability and attitude, so it is disappointing to see her become ineffectual in practical terms thereafter, with little deliberate political affect, focusing on attempts at husbandry and pretty much obsessed with her own personal safety, the latter strongly influencing James. While Munro’s James shows an astute understanding of different social orders, and cause and effect, particularly debating with Henry V of England – a harshly entertaining Jamie Sives – he gives a speech on reaching Scotland that is overly romantic and treated as more persuasive than seems likely. It also appears overtly about referendum issues and England bleeding Scotland dry for centuries.
No further exploration of Scotland-England relations follows, though, despite frequent comparisons from Joan as to wealth and comfort. Focus is on the turmoil within the Stewart family, with attempts at alliance, and stark betrayal changes a king bent on rule of law who refutes the worth of money into one focused on gaining finance, dealing with threats at any cost and using money to keep peace with England.
Gordon Kennedy is excellent as Murdac Stewart, James’ uncle torn between immediate family and desire for peace (indeed, Kennedy gives finely tuned and differentiated performances throughout the trilogy), and Peter Forbes as a lowly lord of the Douglas family makes his mark with a character that develops further in James II: Day of the Innocents. Blythe Duff as Isabella is in turns fiercely protective, blindly proud and chillingly affable. The cast proves a strong ensemble, too, though not all words are intelligible, particularly at the energetic start.
Design includes music and instruments apt for the 15th century, with lyrics taken from contemporary poetry, including a love poem attributed to James. A great bell adds to the period sound, and a wooden bed is built as part of the action, which can then be wheeled off and on, through an exit that is sometimes a drawbridge and sometimes a steep stair. Lighting offers much pervading gloom with occasional golden warmth, just as there is occasional humour in the scenes, often brought by Meg, a serving woman presented to Joan to teach her about all things Scottish, and played by Sarah Higgins with wit, cheek and aplomb.
James I is an interesting exploration of fear and its power in relationships private and public. At times a little heavy handed in expression of ideas, it still keeps its audience engrossed, and there are strong performances throughout.
12, 19 August, 19:30 (22:00); 10, 16, 17, 20 August, 12:00 (14:30) @ Festival Theatre