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.