The James Plays

I spent most of Saturday in a world of love, violence, feuding, greed and ambition. Fifteenth-century Scotland.

The new trilogy of history plays, The James Plays, is being performed for the first time at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, and will travel to London when the Festival is over. On Saturday there was an opportunity to watch all three plays in one day – James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock, James II: Day Of The Innocents and James III: The True Mirror.

The early Stewarts were easily my favourite aspect of studying Scottish History at St Andrews, so it was partly a trip down memory lane. The programme for the plays contained mini essays about each king’s reign written by St Andrews academics – and what a joy to read the story of James III as told by Norman MacDougall, whose Special Subject on James III was so much fun!

So what about the plays? As a trilogy they were superb. I loved the fact that each play had a very different feel, both in the writing and the production. James I offered a hugely entertaining portrayal of 15th-century Scotland, with a host of strong characters and great performances. James I is variously remembered as a tyrant or a strong ruler, and Rona Munro’s interpretation of how his style of kingship may have come about was both interesting and convincing.

James II had a darker feel which was powerfully communicated. While not every aspect of the interpretation was how I would have imagined events taking place, the portrayal of the manipulated child king who was haunted by the events he had witnessed was very effective.

James II is the only one of the three kings whose story I have seen dramatized before, in The Ballad of James II, performed at Rosslyn Chapel in 2007.

I enjoyed James III as a climax to the first two, but it was the part of the trilogy which I personally found least satisfying. It was a vivid imagining of the possible story of Margaret of Denmark, and Sophie Grabøl’s performance was impressive. But the development of Margaret’s character left us with a fairly one-dimensional picture of her husband.  Only once, I felt, did he almost spark into life, when he seemed to taunt his people with having too narrow a view to grasp what he could have offered them. Personally I would have enjoyed seeing this, or other, aspects of his personality and reign explored. Instead this play was the one which probably travelled furthest from history to imagination – the result was an enjoyable performance, but for me it had less impact than the previous two.

Still, watching all three plays one after the other was a thrilling experience. James I, James II and James III, remembered in Scotland at last! See them if you can.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

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