The James Plays. Part 3. James III.


You can read the concept behind the James Plays in my post of two days ago here.

James III completes the trilogy and in my opinion the best was saved for last.

It’s subtitled The True Mirror because writer Rona Munro uses the device of a gift of a ‘true’ mirror from James III to his, by this point in Act 2, estranged wife to show her how ugly she is. But Malin Crepin, the Swedish actor who plays the part, could hardy be described thus, and her character doesn’t fall for it.

It backfires dramatically.  The metaphor extends to the plays as a whole holding a mirror up to Scotland and asking it what it stands for and looks like.

What makes this the most enjoyable of the three plays in the trilogy is, firstly, the performances of Matthew Pigeon as James III and, secondly, of Crepin as his wife, the Danish Queen Margaret.

Munro writes it for laughs and she gets them in spades.

Unlike the first two plays, this time we meet the protagonist towards the end of his short life (he died aged 37).  But it’s debatable whether this play should be called Margaret, as it’s the Queen that dominates the proceedings, fulfilling many of James’ duties in running the country while he enjoys the life of Riley, including assignations both with his female dresser and his manservant.

And yet he still carries a cross for his beautiful queen.

At one point he loses the plot with her and after losing an argument about whether her father, the King of Denmark, had paid her dowry he screams at her. “What did I get as your dowry? Orkney!  And FUCKING Shetland.”

The same cannot be said for his relationship with his eldest son, Jamie, destined to be James IV.  It’s a kind of madness in that he is jealous of him because the future is his and he knows Jamie will one day fill his shoes.  He sets out to make his life a misery as a form of anticipatory punishment.

He is, in the true sense of the word, a 15th century luvvie with many affectations that leave his court speechless, not least his hiring of a choir to follow him in his duties and sing musical numbers appropriate to the task of the moment.    These moments are truly hilarious.

Music plays a big part in James III as both acts open with seemingly spontaneous, but perfectly choreographed, barn dances to contemporary songs like Pharrell Williams’  “Happy’ and The Human League’s “Don’t you want me”.

It’s a hoot.

Pigeon really is outstanding as the madness consumes him; his marriage breaks down and his affair with his manservant reaches shock proportions.  His coming out scene will live long in the memory.

As the play nears its conclusion Queen Margaret berates the audience with the houselights on.  She asks us what being Scottish means to us the accusation being that Scotland does’t actually know what she wants, doesn’t know if it can survive without the protection of our big neighbours.  This is clearly where the Independence agenda is most focussed, as is to be expected given its commission in August 2014.

Regicide/patricide follow.  But by now we are fully attuned to the vagaries of life in 15th century courts.  It’s just another death really.


Over these three productions we meet three excellent kings (particularly Matthew Pigeon) and three excellent queens (particularly Malin Crepin)and some excellent supporting performances from Sally Reid, Blyth Duff, Ali Craig and Peter Forbes.  But, so too, do we have a few disappointments (no names mentioned).

Overall the ensemble is good.

The 20 foot sword that dominates stage left throughout should go.  Frankly it’s a pain in the ass.

For me James III crackled and was both hilarious and absorbing throughout.  Act 1 of James I was every bit as good but Act II slipped a little.  James II was the lesser of the three, let down as it was by the performances of the parliamentary big wigs.

But taken as a whole it’s a big, bold, brave, brash and epic theatrical event like no other I have experienced.

My final word of congratulations goes to Rona Munro.  The writing throughout is stunning, the plotting brilliant and the ambition laudable.

Now, back to my day job.



The James Plays. Part 2. James II.


I’m not going to go through the background to The ‘James Plays’ here.  If you are interested I’ve summarised it in yesterday’s post.

Part two of this theatrical marathon trawl through the 15th Century Scottish Monarchs’ turbulent reigns features the son of James I.  The play opens in his childhood as his mother, Queen Joan, hurriedly tries to bundle him out of her under-seige home in Perth, hidden in a kist.  His mother, spattered in blood, makes a fearsome sight and his father has reached his bloody end as part of an uprising led by Walter Stewart, Earl of Athol.

This experience leads to the young James suffering dreadful nightmares and the kist (or trunk) becomes his place of refuge.

Young James has been born with, in Rona Munro’s interpretation, a Scotland-shaped fiery red facial birthmark that led to his nickname of Fiery Face – it is said people appropriated this as a reflection of his hot temper but we see none of that here and indeed he was known to have run a popular reign.

Thanks to his father’s commitment to righting the wrongs he inherited the young James assumes control (at the age of only one) of a mighty army and rich dynasty,.  However, as a youngster he finds himself under the steely, and cruel, tutelage of Sir Alexander Livingston and the Earl of Crighton.  The boorish Livingston, it transpires, is far more interested in lining his own pockets than doing right for Scotland or for getting James’ back.

It has inevitable consequences.

As a nine year old we see the blossoming of ‘Jamie’s’ friendship with William Douglas, son of the previously inept Balvennie of The Douglas family who has, since finding favour with Queen Joan, grown some balls and amassed a colossal land bank from Elgin in the north down the east coast and into the borders.  Only Galloway now evades his greedy ownership and it’s of strategic importance because it will give him a corridor of territory that will lock out England.

His eldest son, Jamie’s pal William, however, is, in his eyes, a buffoon and has inadvertently stolen a valued horse from the Galloway owners which threatens to blow up into serious trouble.

So far, so convoluted.

The history lesson and the power struggles are fascinating, and the essence of the play.  Particularly that between the Stewarts and the Douglas’s.  It’s brought to vivid life through a metaphor in which both ‘clans’ do battle in a ‘football’ match on the Holy Feast Day of The Innocents that sees the Douglas’ triumph.  It’s underscored by conflict but ends up in a chummy but fragile peace.

The match has been arranged by Jamie’s young bride, the consumptive Mary of Guilders.  In an early scene it becomes clear that James has not consummated their marriage because he has spent the night in his kist suffering terrible nightmare.

Wealth and women are the real keys to power in this cornucopian of dynasties and Rona Munro ensures that, though not warlords, the women of the court and government are portrayed as important powers behind the empires.

Most notable of these is the imprisoned Issabella Stewart who James father has locked up in Edinburgh Castle.  James befriends her and sees her as a soothsayer.  “Beware the mouth that speaks blood” she says foretelling the souring of his relationship with William Douglas.

Most of the play, like James I, focuses on the early life of the King and in this case it’s centred around the timorous King’s early relationship with Livingston, Crighton and Balvennie as his older government leaders, and William Douglas, his best friend.

It’s a more intimate portrait than James I and we see the relationship with William sour as Douglas matures and becomes his father’s greedy son.  A greed that the ‘good King’ cannot tolerate.

The play uses a clever flashback sequence to change time periods as we see the child King become a young man and his initial impishness grow into steely determination.

But gradually it centres purely on his and young Douglas’ friendship.  He sends Douglas to Rome as his Papal representative thinking it will mature him but it only deepens the lust for power that he has inherited from his now dead father (an excellent death scene entertains us in act 2).

He returns thirsting for a share of the Monarch’s influence but we realise quickly that Douglas has overstepped the mark and, far from being the timorous beastie that marked his childhood, King James II will tolerate nae shite frae naebody.

Bring on Part 3.