REVIEW – The James Plays (Edinburgh International Festival)

*****

The swords may change, but the themes remain the same.

Towering over the cast on the Festival Theatre’s stage, the gigantic weapons cast a shadow over the turbulent events which take place in Rona Munro’s visceral and impassioned trilogy of plays. From the proud lines of the claymore in James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock, on past the brutal directness of the broadsword of James II: Day Of The Innocents to the ostentatious pomp of the blade in James III: The True Mirror: the swords reflect not only the characters of the kings they personify, but of the changing face of Scotland itself.

Each of Munro’s bold new plays stands alone, focusing on the dark circumstances and motivations which drive each of their kings. Taken together as a trilogy, they become something more, something which holds relevance today: a sweeping document of a nation moulding its own identity, struggling to define – and to justify – itself.

Things begin in bloody fashion, with the young James I (James McArdle) a hostage to the bellicose Henry V (Jamie Sives). Marrying an English noblewoman Joan Beaufort (Stephanie Hyam), James returns as an exiled king to his homeland, to find himself in the midst of a power struggle for the Scottish throne. The most Shakespearean of the three plays, The Key Will Keep The Lock documents James’ transformation from English lackey to committed but feared ruler, faced with treachery and bloodied ghosts. It also sets the tone for director Laurie Sansom’s treatment of Munro’s histories: with strong language and powerful staging, it aims to appeal to a contemporary audience whilst delving into the complexities of the pieces’ characters and themes.

If the scope of its predecessor is broad, The Day Of The Innocents pulls its focus in much tighter, following the formative years of James II (Andrew Rothney), a king literally marked by the bloody events which see him thrust towards the throne at a tender age. Unable to escape the nightmares of his past, The Day Of The Innocents‘s King is used to explore themes of obsession and fate against a powderkeg backdrop of turmoil and tragedy.

The historical stage moves to the Renaissance in The True Mirror, with James III (Sives) a swaggering and self-obsessed monarch, draining the royal coffers in his hedonistic pursuit of immortality. Frustrating not only his subjects but those closest to him, James III seems only to be able to be tamed by his wife, Queen Margaret (Sofie Gråbøl). The pair’s beautifully-observed relationship forms the crux of The True Mirror, raising themes of love, betrayal and devotion as it – and the trilogy itself – strains towards an inevitable climax.

Each of the play’s leads are strong in their roles, with Sives’ unstable James III the most memorable. And whilst it is the men who may occupy the throne, Munro’s women are equally – if not more – powerful. From Blythe Duff’s sleekit portrayal of Isabella Stewart to Hyam’s strong-willed Queen Joan, the female characters in The James Plays are often the fulcrums upon which the fates of the Kings of Scotland pivot. This is no more apparent than in Gråbøl’s mesmerising performance as Queen Margaret, whose final impassioned speech weaves the strands of the plays together to bring things to a stirring and satisfying end.

Supporting performances are as impressive. Sarah Higgins’ Meg provides a much-needed vein of humanity through the events of I and II, whilst Mark Rowley’s performance as William Douglas in Day Of The Innocents is possibly the piece’s strongest. Gordon Kennedy is also a standout, portraying characters in each of the three plays who are forever in the shadow of the throne, moving effortlessly from greed, stoicism and gravitas.

Staging and design are suitably bold and confident, with Jon Bausor’s stark set placing the audience at the heart of the drama. Christopher Shutt and Nick Sagar’s sound design are also worthy of mention, conjuring brooding soundscapes and modern interpretations of courtly music which underscore the events unfolding on stage.

Munro has created something unique with The James Plays: a play cycle which dramatises historical events whilst adding layers of relevance to today’s audiences. Viewed in the year of the Scottish referendum, they contain elements of national identity which could be viewed through a certain lens.

Their scope however is further reaching than that – these are plays with a power and a resonance which, no matter what state Scotland may find itself in, speak to everyone.

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