Sunday, 2 October 2016

Scotland's Game of Thrones

Soap opera, history lesson and universal themes

Twice this year, in Manchester and Newcastle, I enjoyed the National Theatre of Scotland’s epic trilogy of Rona Munro’s The James Plays. I love seeing a group of actors in a series of plays when individuals appear in small parts in one play and then emerge in a major part in another. This is one of the joys of seeing an acting ensemble perform Shakespeare’s History Cycle. The eight consecutive history plays of Shakespeare are a revelatory miracle when encountered in one fell swoop, but The James Plays are up there with the best “Shakesperean” experiences I’ve ever had.

A bit of everything

Like the greatest soap opera sagas, this “history lesson” contained it all: family love, family feuds, husbands and wives, parents and children, friendships, men, women, betrayal, loyalty, secrets, power, sex, government, nationalism, tribalism and a healthy dose of comedy.

James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock

It’s interesting that all the events depicted in The James Plays were happening during England’s War of the Roses. We met the future James I (a soulful and vulnerably funny Steven Miller) as a helpless prisoner of the English King Henry V. James II’s “homecoming” as King of the Scots proves dark and dangerous when the regents who have been “minding the throne” for him prove to be an ultra-violent bunch whose matriarch, Isabella (played attractively and frighteningly by Blythe Duff), is a she-wolf in the mould of Shakespeare’s Margaret of Anjou. Only the crafty Mudac (the charismatic John Stahl) manages to prevent all-out massacres; the Scottish clans were not impressed by James II’s ideas about collecting taxes for the royal household so political manouvering had to be devious as well as, eventually, brutal. The play also benefits from some joyous female perspectives between spirited Queen Joan (a funny and touching Rosemary Boyle) and her blunt companion Meg (Sally Reid.) Shakespeare’s histories suffer from the convention of all-male acting companies but Rona Munro in these plays gives the voices of women a significant presence.
James I - The Key Will Keep The Lock

James II – Day Of The Innocents

Recurring nightmares prove to haunt the days and nights of Andrew Rothney’s vulnerable James II with his vermilion facial birthmark and lonely existence, often hiding in a trunk. His main consolation comes from William Douglas (a complex portrayal by Andrew Still), a best friend who has father issues of his own; the growing friendship between James and William is the core of the second play and how it strains (fatally) when James marries a confident Dutch princess and William becomes Earl of Douglas following his bullying father’s on-stage death. The play was the darkest of the three but was brilliantly acted by Rothney and Still showing two damaged boys developing a bromance that breaks under the responsibilities of adulthood.

James II - The Day Of The Innocents

James III – The True Mirror

The final play includes joyous kilt-swishing whole-cast songs and dances; wouldja believe Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, Lorde’s Royals, Pharrell Williams’s Happy and Human League’s Don’t You Want Me Baby? The elegant and dignified Danish Queen Margaret (a beguiling Malin Crépin) copes with and manipulates her bisexual and unpredictably stubborn husband, James III (Matthew Pidgeon), steering the country through crisis after crisis. This was the funniest play and, in some ways, the most disturbing by showing the dangers of monarchy if the monarch is anything other than a cipher. James III lounged on cushions, spent money recklessly on rare wines and flattering choirs and avoided all kingly issues. The son of Margaret and James (Daniel Cahill in a performance of volcanic energy) emerged from the wrangling mess, wrapping his own naked flesh in barbed-wire chains, remembering his mother’s advice that what we wear against our skin should reflect the person we are. James (IV) thereby ends the triilogy determined (masochistically) to make Scotland a brutally realist kingdom, steering its own course in the future. Coming in the wake of the campaign for Scottish Independence, I found myself wishing for an Independent Scotland, partly because (having also travelled there recently) I do feel they do things differently there. The air is different. The history was certainly different.

James III - The True Mirror

True reflection or distorted fiction….

One scene has been seared into my consciousness. James III, hoping to taunt his wife with a reflection of mortality and aging, presents her with a novel Italian import, a full-length mirror – a medieval luxury and a miracle of engineering. He sees his own wrinkles and decay – and even sees blemishes in other people that look into this new invention. Margaret, however, peers in and likes what she sees (“I like this woman!”) Because, of course, she is at peace with her own internal self. The on-stage spectators, built into the set like a jury, reminded us subconsciously that we look into mirrors of the past and see either true reflections or distortions. We see what we want to see. We interpret what we want to interpret. Powerful leaders must learn to behave like leaders; but we must also learn how to treat them like leaders. We must look into the mirror and see what is real, not what is a distortion.

Congratulations to:

  • the National Theatre of Scotland
  • Laurie Sansom who directed (with pace and inventiveness) nine hours of sterling theatre
  • Jon Bausor who designed the arena-style setting with its emblematic objects and levels of indoors, outdoors, scaffold, beach, bedchamber, battlefield, dance floor, playground, dreamscape….
  • the cast who entertained, provoked, educated, thrilled, moved….
  • and, finally, to Rona Munro who has written a trilogy that I hope will be staged again by other companies with its fruity, lyrical, rhythmic, realistic, dramatic and surprising language

Jon Bausor's setting with the onstage "jury"