February 28, 2016

King James Versions

Adelaide Festival

The James Plays
by Rona Munro
National Theatre of Scotland,
National Theatre of Great Britain,
Edinburgh International Festival.
February 27. Duration 7 hours 40 minutes including intervals.

“We cannot know the character and thoughts of these dead kings and queens and long-gone Scots,” Rona Munro remarks of the succession of royals and underlings who populate her dazzling epic trilogy, The James Plays, “(But) we can speculate a whole series of possibilities from the few hard facts we can rely on.” And speculate she does, to splendid dramatic effect.

Set in a period, 1394 -1503, of virtually unknown Scottish history, Munro follows the reigns of three kings each entering at a different point in the wheel of history. In the first play, James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock, the king, after 18 years in an English prison , returns to a country controlled by hostile clans. To restore order, paradoxically, he wages bloody war on those closest to him.

James II :The Day of the Innocents, explores the progress of a boy crowned king at the age of six, perpetually surrounded by malign forces. The final play The True Mirror, reflects James III, a clever, careless narcissist whose neglected kingdom is saved – for a time – by his remarkable Danish-born, Queen Margaret.

The National Theatre of Scotland, consummately directed by Laurie Sansom, has created a work that is both spectacular and intimate in its effect. Bathed in Philip Gladwell’s magnificent light, Jon Bausor’s versatile single set features a granite-like stage with wooden panelling, a steep staircase to the throne (surrounded by tiered seating for the audience) and a huge sword rising from stage-left like Excalibur itself.

The music, composed by Paul Leonard-Morgan and Will Gregory, to lyrics by Munro, and performed by the ensemble, moves from winsome folk song to pop ceilidh to spine-tingling plainsong.

But it is the performances which bring Munro’s bold, sinewy narratives and earthy, expressive Scots dialogue to such vibrant life. All three kings are outstanding: Steven Miller as James I, the poet king with a steely resolve and a broken heart, Daniel Cahill (James II) literally scarred for life and locked in tragic struggle with his only friend (memorably played by Andrew Still) and Matthew Pidgeon, as the extravagant, doomed hedonist, James III.

In other roles, John Stahl is commanding as Murdac and the manipulative Livingston, Malin Crepin brings majesty to Queen Margaret, Sally Reid’s Meg is all heart, and Blythe Duff is marvellous both as the ferocious Isabella Stewart and the ever-constant Annabella.

This production has been compared to the TV binge favourites Game of Thrones and House of Cards but in the immediacy, sustained depth and sheer dramatic momentum of The James Plays, Rona Munro and these fine performers remind us that sitting in the theatre is where the real thrills can be found.

Murray Bramwell
“King James Versions”, The Australian, February 29, 2016, p. 14

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