Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The James Plays - National Theatre - Review

James I five stars
James II five stars
James III five stars.

THIS year has been dominated by the lengthy, passionate and sometimes angry debate about Scottish independence.
And to help put it all in context a trilogy of plays has been written by Rona Munro focusing on three of the Stewart Kings of Scotland, namely James I, James II and James III.
It was an ambitious task to distil 80 years of 15th century Scottish history in essentially seven and a half hours, but she has pulled it off to create a thrilling and very special piece of theatre.
They were premiered earlier this summer at the Edinburgh Festival and have now transferred down to the National Theatre's Olivier stage.
Each are very different stylistically and the script mixes modern and old with a beautiful clarity of language. There was also an incredible energy and passion that courses through each piece making them a joy to watch.
They are not history plays per se. True, we do learn about their leadership - and each ruled in a different way - but there is more to it than that.
These are plays about people, their lives, their loves, friendships, politics, how they behave towards each other and how they feel.
There are moments of sadness, cruelty and suffering - the moment Queen Joan rejects her young son James for her lover had me welling up in response to the pain he must have felt - but they are also incredibly funny and at times had the audience roaring with laughter.
In short, Rona Munro has written something glorious, moving and utterly compelling.
Each play is set in the round with a huge sword embedded in the circular stage hinting at the threat of bloodshed, violence and war that is constantly lurking in the background.
The throne is set high up amongst the traditional back of the stage and it is from here that the Kings address their subjects - of which the audience is included.
It kicks off with James I, which after having seen all three, was my favourite. James, who has been held captive by the English for 18 years, is about to be released by Henry V, to take back his throne.
This James is a kind, loving, poetic and sensitive man beautifully played by James McArdle.
He comes back to a country he barely knows with a Queen who doesn't want to be there.
He has an almost impossible task as the country he inherits is poor and he realises the need to be firm and robust with the landowners who have ruled in his absence.
He is not afraid to take difficult decisions in his determination to bring the rule of law to the country but it's a scary proposition and he realises his homecoming is not without danger.
But it's the relationship he has with his English wife Joan, who becomes increasingly disaffected at having to live in remote, cold and cramped conditions, that is both tender and moving.
By the time we get to James II (played by Andrew Rothney) the action shifts gear. We see James as a six year old - he is depicted initially by a wooden puppet - a pawn in the game between the various high ranking and powerful landowners jostling for the best political position.
As a result, danger is everywhere for the boy King and it is a much darker and scarier world. Allegiances are broken, his mother abandons him and he's separated from his sisters. The only person he trusts is his childhood friend William, the future Earl of Douglas.
Gripped and crippled by nightmares throughout his childhood, it is only through the love he finds with his wife Queen Mary that James II is able to fight to keep hold of his crown.
Things brighten up considerably with the lighting, the set and the atmosphere when we come to James III, played by Jamie Sives. This is a King who is at times childish, colourful, charismatic, and a loveable rogue - he is a playboy King.
He rules with an iron rod but with an eye for the ladies and expensive tastes - for example obsessing about creating a choir that he can't afford.
He is both loved and loathed in equal measure but it's his wife Queen Margaret of Denmark who saves him and the monarchy.
The stars of the show of course are the three kings, each different but each totally captivating. They are supported by a uniformally superb cast and there are fabulous performances in particular from newcomer Stephanie Hyam as Queen Joan and Queen Mary as well as Peter Forbes as Balvenie, Sarah Higgins as Meg, Mark Rowley as William Douglas and The Killing's Sofie Gråbøl as Queen Margaret of Denmark.
Each play is brilliant and can certainly be viewed as stand alone pieces - my favourite was James I so if you opt to see just one, make it this one.
However, I'd recommend seeing all of them, and in order as together they become a truly epic, bold and exhilarating piece of theatre.
A thrilling, stunning and fantastic set of stories about this fascinating period of history.

The James Plays are on in rep at the National Theatre until October 29. Tickets from £15 per play. Visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or call the box office on 020 7452 3000.

No comments:

Post a Comment