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.