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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE JAMES PLAYS
at the National (Olivier)

GOOD THINGS IN THREES
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Ph: Manuel Harlan

Not since the golden days of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s epic productions of The Wars of the Roses, the King Henry plays and Nicholas Nickleby has the London theatre experienced anything quite like this joint production of the National and Scottish National Theatre’s James Plays trilogy by Rona Munro. The last time the Olivier Theater hosted three full-length plays on the same day was Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia (2002), an ambitious albeit wheezy and uneven exploration of Russian revolutionaries in the 19th century. 
 
But Munro’s trilogy outstrips Stoppard’s in her creation of historical characters that convincingly resonate with contemporary audiences, in the feistiness of her language and, with the exception of the first act of the second play, in the lucidity with which she encompasses 80 years of mediaeval Scottish history. Nor could the play be more timely, as it deals with Scotland’s failure to control its destiny.
 
As the Danish Queen Margaret eloquently (and appositely) tells members of the Scottish parliament towards the end of the final play, “You’ve got f--- all but attitude. You scream and shout about how you want things done, and how things ought to be done, and when the chance comes, look at you! What are you frightened of?”
 
The first play – which is also the best, is called The Key Will Keep the Lock, and chronicles the reign of James I (James McArdle), who, after being imprisoned in England for 18 years, is given his freedom by a thuggish, foul-mouthed Henry V (Jamie Sives) in the hope that returning James Stewart to Scotland will end that country’s warring alliance with France.
 
Several feudal lords, acquisitive relatives and pretenders to the throne have other ideas where kingship and succession are concerned, and it is only when an initially unassertive, poetry-writing James realises he has to show some aggression for what is rightfully his that he can claim the throne as his own.
 
Domestically speaking, not only has James never met the woman who has been chosen to be his bride – Queen Joan (Stephanie Hyam), a well-bred English rose (and cousin of Henry VI) unfamiliar with the rough-and-readiness of the Scottish court circa 1424 – but, as Scottish custom dictates, he is also required to share the intimacy of his wedding night with a dozen male relatives who (literally) assemble at his bedside to protect him.
 
Day of the Innocents, the second and least compelling of the plays, confusingly delves into the troubled life of James II (Andrew Rotheny), who was crowned king at the age of six. Born with an unsightly birthmark on his face and suffering from nightmares, he was a traumatised child king (here depicted as a manipulated puppet) unable to take control of his life until urged on to do so by his French wife Mary (also played by Hyam). The play’s better second half concentrates on the friendship between James and his duplicitous best friend William Douglas (Mark Rowley).

The third play, much of which is staged in modern dress to approximate the passing of time, is called The True Mirror, in which James III is depicted as a wanton bisexual whose arrogance, selfishness, willfulness and total disregard for the welfare of his subjects forces his estranged, level-headed Danish Queen Margaret (Sophie Grabol) reluctantly to take control before the country spirals into chaos.
 
A full-length Venetian mirror James gives Margaret as a gift serves as a powerful symbol in which certain people are forced to take a hard, cold look at themselves – some for better, some for worse.
 
There are not many opportunities to see all three plays on the same day, which is a pity as the cumulative effect re-enforces the play’s twin themes that kings have few friends but many enemies and that unbridled power is invariably corrosive and destructive.
 
Munro’s dialogue, which occasionally wanders into TV’s Blackadder territory, perfectly captures the coarseness of the period, and despite the liberal use of Anglo-Saxon expletives and colloquial turns of phrase, somehow never feels anachronistic. Laurie Samson’s staging, in an effectively intimate design by Jon Bausor that is dominated by an enormous sword and a background of utilitarian bleachers in which cast and audience mingle freely, is epic within its Shakesperean-like concept, yet simple in execution. It is full of delights and surprises, not least of which is the casting of the excellent Danish actress Grabol, who effectively eschews her famous Sarah Lund sweater in TV’s The Killing for an altogether more glamorous look in the third play.
 
McArdle, Rothney and Sives are excellent as the three James'. Hyam is a knockout as both Queen Joan and Mary, with other fine performances by Rowley, Blythe Duff and Peter Forbes as powerful threats to the crown. The theatrical achievement of 2014.

 


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