James cubed – a theatre review

The National Theatre is showcasing three plays by Rona Munro, called the James Plays. They cover three Scottish kings who were all, imaginatively, called James. This is an area of history that is poorly known and understood. As a consequence Rona Munro has taken some liberties. The programme, rather boldly, states

I feel a certain responsibility, therefore, to alert you to the fact that some small liberties have been taken with known events in order to serve our stories. …. Certain characters represent amalgamations of many characters or stand for political forces within Scotland. certain events had their timelines altered to maximise the drama.

Basically, they’re fiction.

Because of the scheduling we saw the plays in reverse order. III then II then I. Having seen the first (I mean the third) I thought it wouldn’t make much difference to our understanding or enjoyment. I was wrong.

We learnt a little history. Fr’instance, the Danes/Norwegians gave Scotland the Orkneys and Shetland as a dowry for their daughter, Margaret which, with the perspective of history and the North Sea oil reserves must be seen as something of an ill judged gift.

In James I we learn that he was a pawn of the English. He went to France as a child and ended up in an English jail for 18 years. With Henry V dying he is sent home to be a King of the Scots and use his new found position to raise taxes to pay the ransom on his head. As a character James I is the most believable of the Kings. He has to learn his role; in jail he is a poet; in life outside he is soft and untutored in the medieval arts of a knight. He meets a lot of resistance especially from his own ambitious family all claiming a root to the crown through Robert the Bruce. However his uncle is supportive, even if his aunt Isabella would gladly see him dead and one of her sons on the throne.  Balvenie, who becomes the Earl of Douglas and features prominently in James II is a nervous and duplicitous supporter who attempts to get to James through his English bride, Joan. The plotting and intrigue and, especially, the growth of James into his role is well portrayed. The best however, is the developing relationship between King and Queen. Her fear and his attempts to convince her she is safe. By far the best of the three plays, it still plays to the (then) upcoming referendum in its digs at the Scots being held to ransom by the English. The knowing way some of the lines are delivered grates.

For James II the story shift its focus to the dreadful treatment meted out to the second James Stewart (I thought it was spelt ‘Stuart’ but here it follows the It’s a Wonderful Life’ actor’s spelling). As a child James II was abused mostly psychologically. He hid in a  crate and is timid and manipulated, even to the extent of being cajoled into signing his cousin’s death warrant. The play gradually lightens both metaphorically and literally as first William, son to the Earl of Douglas, befriends him and second he marriages a feisty French woman who knocks sense into him. William has troubles of his own, his father (Balvenie in the last play, whose manoeuvring there can now be seen to have paid off – it made more sense when we saw the first play) being ambitious for the throne and for land acquisition as a root to both power and respect. He dictates William’s every move. William thinks that his friendship with Jamie, under which they will together rule jointly will set him free. But he misjudges the Jamie that emerges, a subtle thoughtful King. Realising William is a loose canon and needing to negotiate his way to power James sends him to Rome. When he returns a year later William is changed; no longer will he be dictated to least of all by James and the inevitable happens.

I know it is only a play but while the change in  William is excellently done, believable and seamless, with James it clunks like badly working gears. Also, and here it would have helped to see the plays in the right order, we had a character, Isabelle Stewart a prisoner who acts as some sort of soothsayer cum Shakespearean crone in James II. At the time I saw James II, I didn’t understand where she came from nor her relevance and she added a sense of farce to the final acts. However having seen James I where she is James’ likely nemesis until her sons are arrested and she is locked up too, James II turning to her as someone who knows the background and might be able to opine on his likely enemies makes more sense. Some. Not a lot but some. Frankly, even with her prompting, I just didn’t believe James’ conversion to killer of his friend at the end.

Unlike James I I thought the acting patchy. James and William were good, James’ sister and his queen less so and the supporting cast of manipulating Earls rather caricatures. That said, the best lines fell to William’s father, Balvenie. Despairing of his son, he muses out loud how he can have sired such a boy – he wants to love him – but he answers rhetorically that his turds also emerge from him and he doesn’t have to like them.

And finally James III a moody iconoclast who warred with his brothers and children and tried to run his kingdom entirely for his private benefit, constantly reneging on promises to the lairds and earls who supported him. Eventual civil war led to his demise and the crowning of his eldest son who he had previously accused of treachery. This play was an odd construct. At the start, as we took our seats a Scottish jig became a pop song and the dancing on stage became a sort of reel-cum-disco. Modern dress was interspersed with contemporary. The King took friends from everywhere including an overtly homosexual relationship with a courtier which seemed unlikely in such religious (and Catholic) times but was consistent with the mixed timings. At one point he demands he has his own quire to sing his praises on demand. At all sorts of times he would call them to action, frustrating others who sought serious discussion. The trouble with this device was it reminded me of the Monty Python Vikings, appearing in the background of certain sketches and who burst into song at the mention of the word ‘spam’.

It leant a sense of farce to the latter parts of the play. It was difficult to know if we were seeing a history play, an allegory or merely an entertainment with some Scottish antecedents thrown in.

The acting was uniformly ok but not much more; only Sofie Gråbøl the Danish actress famous for her lead part in the Killing stood out as the Danish Queen. Even so there was a speech at the end, where she asks:  “Who would want the job of ruling Scotland?” And then she adds (getting a big laugh as she looks directly at the audience) “You know the problem with you lot? You’ve got fuck-all except attitude.” Now I like a history play that has a resonance today. Often what makes Shakespeare so good is that the plots are still so fresh today. But at a time of referendum this just seems contrived. A classic case of an author who has thought of a good line and even though it jars with the rest of the play wants to keep it for its own sake. This line alone made me wonder at the intentions of Rona Munro; coupled with other lines, dotted throughout all three plays, I have to say she has sadly diminished the whole by tying it so obviously to the referendum sentiments. Someone should have told her this wasn’t to be played for cheap sub political laughs. I imagine these might be cut in years hence, if these plays have the legs. Frankly I doubt it.

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published several books: a four book series following Harry Spittle as he grows from hapless student to hapless partner in a London law firm; four others in different genres; a book of poetry; four anthologies of short fiction; and a memoir of my mother. I have several more in the pipeline. I have been blogging regularly since 2014, on topic as diverse as: poetry based on famous poems; memories from my life; my garden; my dog; a whole variety of short fiction; my attempts at baking and food; travel and the consequent disasters; theatre, film and book reviews; and the occasional thought piece. Mostly it is whatever takes my fancy. I avoid politics, mostly, and religion, always. I don't mean to upset anyone but if I do, well, sorry and I suggest you go elsewhere. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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3 Responses to James cubed – a theatre review

  1. Charli Mills says:

    I imagine the newspapers read, “While launching his debut novel and whipping out his next Spittle installment, the vivacious Mr. Le Pard was seen in polite company at the theater last night…” 🙂


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