RONA Munro’s trilogy The James Plays opened in Edinburgh for the 2014 Festival, attracting enthusiastic reviews from both critics and audiences.
This year the epic undertaking has been revived, touring Scotland and England before its ten day stint in Toronto. The plays came to the Theatre Royal in Plymouth for the late May Bank Holiday weekend, providing an exciting, intense and memorably fascinating look at Scotland, set at around the same time as the BBC’s Hollow Crown.
The first most of us know of a King James of Scotland was their sixth, our first, who took the British throne after Elizabeth I and reigned from 1603 to 1625, leaving behind him the King James Bible. But of course there were five before him north of the border, and these plays follow the lives of the first three of them.
The plays were commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland, and are remarkable in so many ways. Each one radically different from the others, set from 1406 until 1488, a period of intense fighting and confusion.
James I : The Key Will Keep the Lock, opens with the young Scots king taking his farewells of Henry V, a man who has kept him prisoner in England for 18 years. It is expedient for the English to send him back as a ransomed vassal to the court in Edinburgh, but young James has not been idle in his incarceration, and has a different idea for his future. First he has to persuade the warring tribes to accept his claim to the leadership.
His son, in the second play. Day of the Innocents, is another sort of king, plagued with nightmares and fears and clutching at friends and a scared young wife to keep his sanity. Time has moved on and the court is slightly more civilised.
By the time his son James III appears in The True Mirror there’s a veneer of sophistication, but the king squanders his power with favourites and lascivious and lavish displays and events, infuriating the parliament and his beautiful Danish queen.
Each of The James Plays is started by a punk masque, which by the end brings Peatbog Fairies style music – and kilts – to the stage. As with all NTS productions, it’s loud, incredibly energetic, powerful, complex, angry and unforgettable. Power struggles in the 15th century aren’t so different from those today, and the foibles and frailties of human nature are writ large on a stage dominated by a massive sword, testosterone-fuelled warriors and women just beginning to discover their intrinsic power.
I kept wondering what Nicola Sturgeon had made of these plays about how the Scots seduced, fought and plotted to keep out of the greedy clutches of their southern neighbours.
A magnificent enterprise, brilliantly performed by a hugely talented ensemble.