The James Plays, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Rona Munro’s triptych spotlights the three James Stewarts who reigned over an unruly Scotland between 1424 and 1488: it’s an ambitious trilogy that both informs and transcends the debate about independence.
The first play is the best. Released after 18 years in English captivity, James McArdle’s young James I sacrifices the better parts of his nature in the struggle to tame the nobles who have governed in his absence. The pace flags a little in James II, in which the action plays out mainly within the psychologically battered young monarch’s own head, but there is still much to enjoy.
The heart of the third play is Sofie Gråbøl (star of TV’s The Killing), who, as Queen Margaret, tries to save her husband (James III), sons and adopted country from themselves. Each play would stand on its own; taken together, they offer a rich multi-generational saga – and a powerful flavour of a period crucial to the formation of the Scottish state. Mure Dickie
A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts, Northern Stage at King’s Hall, Edinburgh
With this idiosyncratic Fringe offering, the Lyric Theatre’s Secret Theatre season has found a voice of its own. The piece feels completely fresh: a theatrical assault course. It’s a circuit of tasks to be completed (or rather, attempted) anew each night. Ten actors put their names in a hat and pick out a protagonist at random. That poor soul introduces themselves, then gets stuck in: dancing, wrestling, downing beers, bending metal, squeezing into suitcases, chomping on lemons. Before long, they’re panting, tearful and trying not to be sick. It’s electrifying to watch and full of heart, humour and humility. Matt Trueman
edfringe.com, 0131-226 0000, to August 17
Front Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
An innovative piece of theatre for the Edinburgh Festival to commemorate the impact of the first world war. Flemish director Luk Perceval directs a polyphonic performance drawn from All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Under Fire by Henri Barbusse and contemporary accounts that detail the horrors of life in the trenches for both sides. Performed in German, French, Flemish and English, with English surtitles. Sarah Hemming
eif.co.uk, 0131 473 2000, August 22-26
Brass City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds
Another commemorative piece about the first world war, this time a brand new musical work by Benjamin Till, performed by the National Youth Music Theatre. The story follows a group of men who are all members of an amateur brass band and who join the Leeds Pals regiment at the outset of the war.
While they are away, the local women are determined to keep the spirit of the band alive, so they learn to play the instruments, with a view to welcoming the men home. As they struggle to master the instruments, the men struggle to stay alive. SH
nymt.org.uk, 0113 243 0808, August 20-23
My Night with Reg, Donmar Warehouse, London
There is added poignancy to Robert Hastie’s superb, beautifully acted revival of Kevin Elyot’s groundbreaking play in that its author is not here to see it (he died in June). First staged in 1994, the play is set in the 1980s, against the background of growing fear over Aids. But while it portrays a circle of gay friends and the impact on their lives, Elyot doesn’t confront Aids directly, but shows how cruelly it accentuates the fragility of love and the passage of time. A humane, timeless piece about friendship, ageing, unrequited love and death. SH
donmarwarehouse.com, to September 27
1984, Playhouse, London
Final week for Headlong’s brilliant Orwell adaptation. Directed by Robert Icke andDuncan Macmillman, it draws on the appendix to the novel, entitled “The Principles of Newspeak”, combining past, present and future and using multiple layers of action and media to create a terrifying world in which the truth is never certain. It’s a production that punctures complacency as it suggests that our own ideas of freedom of choice may be more manipulated than we imagine. SH
playhousetheatrelondon.com, 0844 871 7677, to August 23
Photograph: Eoin Carey