The ‘James Plays’ were written to commission by Rona Munro for National Theatre of Scotland, The National Theatre and The Edinburgh Festival for Ed Fest 2014 and were performed a month before the Scottish Independence referendum on September 18th 2014.
The timing was no coincidence.
They were performed initially to reviews that ranged from ambivalent to brilliant. One critic described them as better than Shakespeare (specifically I think this was in comparison to the ‘Henry Plays’) – something of an exaggeration given that Munro’s language is far less dense, and written with 21st century audiences (and not all in Scotland) in mind.
Whilst Shakespeare wrote largely in the vernacular of 17th century England, and in unrhymed iambic pentameter, Munro spares us this secondary level of complexity. The dialogue is, in fact, very easy to follow.
Like Shakespeare, Munro is fond of a laugh and James I, Act 1 particularly, is chock full of laughs; some belly laughs in fact.
The trilogy (‘Box Set Theatre’ as it has been described rather flippantly) covers the reigns of the first three Scottish King James’ and covers the period of around 1424 when James returns to Scotland as a 31 year old uncrowned (in his native land) Monarch, just married to a fucking (as Munro is want to say) high maintenance 17 year old nobleman’s daughter, Joan Beaufort, daughter of nobleman, The Earl of Somerset, to 1488.
He’s survived 18 years in King Henry 5th’s prison after he was captured by English pirates whilst fleeing Scotland as a 12 year old boy. He was invested, in prison, as king of Scotland by Henry but, of course, the savages, deep in conflict with their English neighbours know not of this and one particularly treacherous family, cousins of james, The Albany Stewarts have installed themselves in Falkland Palace and are running the country as tyrants.
The play concerns James’ freedom and return to Scotland with his new, petrified, bride and her maid ‘Meg’ (brilliantly played by Sally Reid) to establish his monarchy in the face of fierce opposition from the Stewarts.
His ambition is to return Scotland to lawful and fair governance, to end the war with England and to return the land taxes to the monarch’s chancellery instead of straight into the pockets of the Stewarts.
Well, it doesn’t proceed as planned.
The wife’s a moaning, homesick pain in the ass. Although it becomes clear that, despite the arranged nature of the marriage, not only is James in love with her but he had a major crush on her as he spied her from his prison cell in England.
The Albany Stewarts, especially the ferocious matriarch Isabella (a stellar turn by Blyth Duff) resist strongly.
And he can’t afford an army.
Thus we have much fighting, lots of ribald language, comedy aplenty and a touching love story as an underscore.
It’s great fun. with great performances by the ensemble of 20 and strongly led by Steven Miller as James, Rosemary Boyle as Queen Joan and John Stahl as Murdac Stewart.
We are spared james full life story culminating in his murder in Perth in 1437 during a failed coup. His wife, Queen Joan and mother of his soon to be crowned son, James II escapes and seeks refuge in Edinburgh Castle where, presumably. James II might kick off.
We’ll see. (And so should you)
James Plays at Edinburgh Festival Theatre until 13 Feb before touring.