Review: The James Plays

'Theatre', Jeffrey Smith / CC
Photograph: 'Theatre', Jeffrey Smith / CC

Genre: Theatre 

Venue: Festival Theatre


Low Down
The James Plays – James I, James II and James III – are a new cycle of history plays by award-winning playwright Rona Munro. This vividly imagined trilogy brings to life three generations of Stewart Kings who ruled Scotland in the tumultuous 15th century.

Each play stands alone as a unique vision of a country tussling with its past and future; viewed together they create a complex and compelling narrative on Scottish culture and nationhood full of playful wit and boisterous theatricality.

How and why, in a nominally democratic age, do you write about royalty? Here is Gore Vidal, from his 1993 introduction to Creation:

Until the last century the mainline of imaginative literature had always been stories of the gods, heroes, kings of a people. From Aeschylus to Dante to Shakespeare to Tolstoi, what went on in the palaces or on Olympus provided the main line of narrative in verse, prose, drama. I think it a pity that, as a character in Saul Bellow’s Herzog remarks, somewhere around 1840 the novel fell into the quotidian, to which Professor Herzog irritably asks, So where was it standing before it fell? The answer was in myth or history or whatever narrative is back of us.

Does that necessarily make stories about kings and gods and whatnot better than those about bean-counters and counter-jumpers? No – but it does acknowledge how big, how fundamental, the taproot of such stories is. And up until now, Scotland hasn’t made use of it. Bear in mind that until the 1970s and the New History of Scotland series from Edinburgh University Press, Scotland didn’t have much history that wasn’t written by John Prebble. Contrast that with how much ink has been spilled on the Tudors over the past two hundred years. Why? Shakespeare. The stories that a nation tells to itself begin with gods and kings and heroes. As James I says, ‘I am Scotland’. And if we live in a time of no gods and precious few heroes, perhaps that’s exactly the time to start finding out where we came from. Hence the need for, and grand occasion of, the James Plays.

I’m always struck with wonder at how a writer manages to create something out of nothing. Having glanced at a little of the history of the first three Jameses, I’m amazed at how Rona Munro managed not to be overwhelmed. The Stewarts may have had short lives on the whole, but they packed a lot in. One thinks of the Chinese curse: ‘May you live in interesting times.’ They did. The cast of personages alone – we’ll take James IV’s Wikipedia entry, so as not to give the game away: Princess Cecily of England, his betrothed; Alexander Duke of Albany, who invaded Berwick with Richard, Duke of Gloucester; Henry VII; Wolsey; MacDonald, Lord of the Isles; MacDonald of Lochalsh; Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyll; Torquil MacLeod of Lewis; Alexander Gordon, Earl of Huntly – and on it goes. How do you reduce this to something which doesn’t require a speaking cast of a hundred?

As we all now know from years of Hollywood education, you take a conflict, and you pick an arc. Ms Munro has picked her story arcs well. James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock is a relatively straightforward history play which asks – how does a king who has been in exile for 18 years govern a country where the noble families have become used to governing themselves? The B-plot, if you will, is the developing relationship between James and his English wife, Joan. James II: Day of the Innocents is a sort of bildungsroman, which begins with James’s highly interesting childhood. Ms Munro has described James III: The True Mirror as a love story in the style of a ’30s Hollywood film, with wit and fallings-out. We’ll let that stand, but remember, this is the Stewarts. She has used the history without being enslaved by it, which is wholly admirable.

One wants the enterprise to succeed, and taken as a whole it does. To get something on this scale to work at all is difficult; to manage it, an achievement which deserves to be recognised and applauded. And it does work. This damned big bird gets off the ground and stays aloft with nary a creak, it draws you into the story and stories of the Jameses, it makes you laugh and recoil, it has daring and tragedy and horror, and it leaves you wanting to know more. The stage design and costumes, lighting and live music, fighting and dancing, all go to show that the big budget has been well spent. But, there are some buts, which I make reluctantly as they seem a little churlish.

There is a want of range in the language, particularly in the first play. It is not that Munro cannot rise to the big speeches. She can, and they do what one would hope for, stirring and moving and giving focus. Yet, the intimate scenes seem better handled and tighter. Because there appear to be more of these in James II and James III, those plays come across as more successful. The undercutting of tension with anachronism or street-language seems less out-of-place. Blank verse would be unconvincing and lead to the kind of comparisons which Munro is rightly keen to avoid (Henry V appears in the first scene of James I, and with those dues perhaps having been acknowledged and cleverly subverted, we can move on), but I’d have been happier with some dialogue which was more poetic, or carried a bit more flair, and less relentlessly pedestrian. Every Scot understands mode-switching, the language of the playground or back-of-house or pub, and the language for the bank manager or the customer. Shakespeare (sorry) did the same. There’s no reason to think the Jameses would have been any different.

Rona Munro has been quoted as saying she wanted to make the stories contemporary (she has) and to show that these were people just like us. Well, yes and no. Subject to the same impulses, but not to the same expression or understanding of them. And is anyone who governs a country, or runs a major corporation, ‘just like us’?

So the dialogue offers moments of delight, but on the whole comes across as solid and competent. The acting, likewise. There are no weaknesses, and in such a large cast that is, once again, an achievement to be celebrated but it takes Sophie Gråbøl, as Queen Margaret in the third play, to show what can and perhaps should have been achieved: she lifts her dialogue from competence to grace. You feel the carrying tension in her pauses, which elsewhere in the plays seem like so many gaps, snagging at the pace; you get the impression of a living woman rather than a well-realised character. It’s a star turn.

If I had to recommend only one out of the three I’d plump for James II, which has the tightest grip on its story and a really bravura piece of scripting and staging at whip-crack pace to open the first half. Thereafter the play gradually drops back into the level best of the James Plays as a whole. James I and James III are about even, different sorts of plays though they are – perhaps James III has a slight edge thanks to Gråbøl. In truth I wouldn’t want to miss any of them, and if you can see them all, you should, not simply for the occasion or the scale but for the plays themselves. Coming out of James I, I couldn’t help thinking: ‘In five yee-ahs the Stoo-a’t family will be completely legitimate, Joan.’

But if The James Plays draw from the same deep well as The Godfather, that’s a good thing. And limping out from James III, I can’t have been the only person thinking, ‘sequel’. It’s not impossible Ms Munro (once she has caught her breath) or someone else will want to do James IV, V, and VI. I hope they will.


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Graham Paterson 8 Articles
Graham Paterson was born in Scotland and is still growing up there. He was educated in England and has never quite got over it. There is no known liberal cause at which his knee does not twitch. He has a favourite word in Scots, which we cannot print.

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