REVIEW – James II: Day of the Innocents (Edinburgh International Festival)


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 II: Day of the Innocents

The second of the James Plays, Day of the Innocents focuses on the results of trauma and abuse, with a central relationship between James II (Andrew Rothney) and William Douglas (Mark Rowley).

James II was crowned when 6 years old, following the murder of his father, and grew up a pawn and puppet of power-hungry factions. Manipulations included greed and murder, the young king here becoming crippled by nightmares. Will, too, is traumatised via his father’s ambitions and violence, and neither wins free of such legacies. We also see – repeated in James III: The True Mirror – the power to wound of words that are intended and those that fly in the heat of the moment, here created by the tensions of these extreme circumstances, but recognisable to anyone.
The struggles of the youths play out against a curve of wooden slats that can be broken through, a floor that is subtly lit for nightmares, when discord is often found in the music – modern in its sound at such times – and multiple trunks that are put to various uses, including the oft-sought hiding place of the young James, depicted with use of a puppet that is sometimes highly effective but occasionally a bit dead in its handling.

Rothney finds different layers of strength and vulnerability, while Rowley skilfully negotiates changes of age and extreme emotion. Stephanie Hyam presents a delightful Mary of Gueldres, wife to James II, a complete contrast to her portrayal of James II’s mother and Blythe Duff delivers an imprisoned Isabella Stewart who is believable and haunting in her proud and vicious obsession with her dead sons, lost in the power struggles depicted in James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock.

The two halves of this play are somewhat different in style, due to the repetition and presentation of James’ nightmares in the first part, and some of the pacing of the final confrontation between James and Will seemed a little off. It is, though, a scene with power, and an impassioned – and probably mentally unbalanced – Will voices the cry of one determined on personal freedom, valuing it above any manner of political power or economic wealth. There is a thread that runs with Will’s father through both James I and James II, and appears in what James III values, that looks at how worth is measured, whether in martial achievement, possession of land and finance, or – in the final play – in personal qualities of aesthetics and talent: a thread linked to current debates regarding independence.

Overall, James II is a strong exploration of damage, oppression and ensuing explosion, with even the handle of the great sword bursting into sudden flame. Death comes in many guises and often without warning. The cycle of violence is clearly shown, along with the legacy of suspicion fostered by betrayals, though Munro’s scripts for these James Plays repeatedly present accusation and denial that comes out of the blue, where you cannot know the legitimacy of either. This can make itself felt as a lack of information, but does feed the pervasion of suspicion through the plays and might point to a wish for trust in attempts at improving Scotland’s lot.

13, 21 August, 19:30 (22:00); 10, 16, 17, 20 August, 16:00 (18:30) @ Festival Theatre

REVIEW – James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock

REVIEW – James III: The True Mirror

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