“‘On you go then, son. On you go. You can do it’.”
‘Poisoned dresses are something out of children’s stories … if you want to kill her. Put a knife in her’, which would explain, right enough, why there is a whopping great sword on the boards. Still, The James Plays do imply – with a nod and a wink and a catchy dance step – that the Scots are one wicked antidote to the English. They also, with stirring ease, bring on guid strong women. Admire (or not) the toxic fortitude and murderous determinations of James I, II, and III but applaud Queens Joan, Mary and Margaret and give thanks for Annabella, Meg and Phemy.
There is no shortage of bloodletting in Rona Munro’s gutsy trilogy of how to keep head and crown together – in fact the ginormous sword runs with the red stuff – but actually the property of the piece is the kist in the bedroom. That’s ‘proper furniture’ [that chest], with a hundred uses’. You can hide a boy king in it for a start – and ‘drop it out of the window and brain any bastard climbing up the castle’. Munro’s writing is like that: hands-on, unhesitating and constructive.
Best, if you can, to see the plays in order – that’s from 1420 to 1488; and although they’re too inventive and complete to be Horrible Histories they do, in their savage and entertaining scenes, come pretty close: in James I, for instance, when Walter Stewart nails horseshoes to the hands and feet of one of his tenants, old Ada, for scolding him; or in James II when the young king peeks out of his kist to see his mother about to have sex with her ‘protector’ John Stewart. Too many Stewarts? Well, there’s always a Douglas on the make and by the time of the bi-sexual James III, there’s his lover, architect Cochrane, and fine wine and madrigals before all else, especially trying to rule Scotland.
Laurie Sansom’s convinced direction and Jon Bausor’s set design, with drawbridge, allow a febrile exchange between private and public space. The royal four-poster is closely guarded and/or spied upon, take your pick, and the king swings his sword on its canopy. When Parliament assembles it is alongside an audience on stage. The throne is up there too, occasionally occupied, but the space also doubles as a tower room where Isabella Stewart is held captive and spins out her prophetic misery.
That’s Blythe Duff as Isabella and as Annabella in James III and it is, again, a terrific performance. She reprises the roles from the original 2014 production with the same astringent glee and love. She’s there at the very end, dressing the new king with clothes and jewels and with an absolute definition of understatement: ‘On you go then, son. On you go. You can do it’.
And, yes, these dramatised chronicles do at times go on … and on. The squabbling lords might get to you, as they certainly did to James III, or it might just be that the set-piece addresses to the Three (male) Estates are too PC, too YES-NO referendum freighted for your taste, or that you find staged medieval football awkward, but then there’s the wheel of fortune to turn and it’s a mighty one to get going and even harder to brake. These are, after all, history plays and since when were they short and sweet?
Go into the National Museum of Scotland, as I did in-between plays. You’ll find wolves on level 1, ‘Beginnings’, and they certainly belong in the nightmare sequences of James II, but search further and there ain’t too much in the Kingdom of the Scots: one small panel for each of ‘our’ Jamies and arrowheads from the walls of Threave Castle. More fun certainly, more knowledge possibly, is to be had watching Peter Forbes as gross, droll, Balvenie stacking up the Douglas lands; or see Dani Heron as Phemy, 15, assault a guard who’s presuming to search the queen’s rooms. Ballsy! And then there are the sovereign roles: Steven Miller as James I, the poet king, keyed up, commanding in the thick of it but who would have given everything to pen ‘Love, love me do’ in his time; rangy Andrew Rothney as James II, damaged and vulnerable, but who has that majesty thing ; and Matthew Pidgeon as James III, truth seeker, rascal man, outrageous king in black patent winklepickers , only matched by his virtuous Danish queen, Margaret, played by Swedish actress Malin Crepin, naturally.
I saw The James Plays in 2014, when I had been reviewing Fringe shows, and was disconcerted by the numbers on stage and by the sheer size of the venture. In review terms it was a stand-off. Now, second time around, I’d call it all audacious and vivid. Showstoppers with attitude.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 6 February)
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