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 III: The True Mirror
Munro’s James III is a figure of great charisma, drawing both extreme love and hate, and Jamie Sives’ performance – with a touch of Robert Downey Jr about him – certainly grabs attention. It is also very clear why many would hate him, in his arrogant superiority, lack of care for practical rule in a Scotland suffering economically and judicially, and his use of the people who love him. There are signs, though, of vulnerability and a deep doubt develops as to why people are drawn to him, even while he recklessly pursues his perceived right to absolute rule and rides roughshod – with much ridicule – over his court and family.
James’ patient, loving wife, Margaret of Denmark, is played by Sofie Gråbøl and despite her dedication to a husband who pursues multiple lovers and treats her appallingly, Margaret proves to be a fascinatingly attractive and strong woman. The mirror of the title presents truths to various characters, seeing themselves in this new, clear Venetian glass, and most find it harsh. Margaret, though, finds herself and declares, with beautiful joy, ‘I like this woman’. Thoughts of not needing outward adornment if you just believe in yourself and live comfortably in your true skin, add a dimension to what is real strength of character for all people – and possibly for a nation. Knowledge and possible acceptance of self echoes at the end, when James IV dresses in pain along with finery, and the legacy of his ancestors, explored within the three James Plays, brings both pressure and a sense of supportive weight.
The central relationship between Sives and Gråbøl, James and Margaret, is riveting, with it made clear that she is the only one that truly understands him, despite an estrangement that has them living apart, his casting off of his eldest son, the future James IV being a particularly painful aspect of James’ whims. Gordon Kennedy as Head of the Privy Council James ignores and provokes gives another well-defined performance, balancing personal and political aspirations, and Blythe Duff, as James II’s sister Anabella, brings great warmth and grounded observation to one of the few that survived previous troubles, with the occasional flashes of past damage done to her reverberating strongly.
Played out with a mix of fashion, drawing period history into modern context without seeming to try to bash you over the head with this, and against ornate furnishings and hangings, underpinning James’ interests with the cost of them, James III: The True Mirror explores ideas of choice, the pain and posturings that can result from the lack of this, and the strength of character and self-belief needed to face responsibilities and make difficult decisions.
Margaret, as a foreigner who has taken Scotland and the Scots to her heart, voices much of today’s arguments for an independent Scotland, a state which is often championed by those who have come from abroad to make their lives here. There is a certain romanticism to her call, and to all the James plays, but there is also realism and depth to the explorations of relationships regarding power, public and personal needs and desires, and where true value in life can be found, and as Margaret, Gråbøl very much takes over the production as well as Scotland, in a performance of true connection, intelligence, vulnerability and strength.
14, 15, 22 August, 19:30 (22:00); 10, 16, 17, 20 August, 20:15 (22:45) @ Festival Theatre