The Edinburgh International Festival has been criticised for not engaging directly with Scotland’s looming referendum on whether to leave the UK – but with The James Plays it has served up an ambitious historical trilogy that both informs and transcends the independence debate. Rona Munro’s theatrical triptych spotlights the three James Stewarts who reigned over an unruly Scotland between 1424 and 1488.
Each play would stand on its own. Taken together, they offer a powerful flavour of a period crucial to the formation of the Scottish state that in 1707 would unify with England to create Great Britain – and a rich multi-generational saga exploring the corrosive effect on a family of its monarchical inheritance of power and fear.
The first play is the best. Released after 18 years in English captivity, James McArdle’s hesitant but determined young James I sacrifices the better parts of his nature in the struggle to tame the nobles who have governed during his long absence. Pacily directed and with flashes of humour to break the steadily thickening atmosphere of threat and doom, James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock is an exercise in how politics unrestrained by law turns victims into villains, and often back again.
The pace flags a little in the first half of James II: Day of the Innocents, in which the action plays out mainly within the psychologically battered young monarch’s own head. There is still much to enjoy, however. Peter Forbes excels as a Douglas earl who forgets his fear of death in the grasping accumulation of land and influence. Bold staging sustains the atmosphere. In flashbacks, the child king is well played by a puppet, manipulated by three black-clad puppeteers in a style reminiscent of Japanese bunraku. A huge sword dominates the stage through all three plays, an ever-present reminder of the ultimate arbiter of kingly power.
The threat of deadly violence is less obvious at first in the early stages of James III: The True Mirror, in which national and marital politics play out together in a court now softened by Renaissance culture. After a brief but formidable appearance in the first play as England’s King Henry V, Jamie Sives is less convincing as the self-obsessed and polyamorous Scottish monarch, played here like a Renaissance rock-star.
The heart of the third play is Sofie Gråbøl, the Danish actress best known as Sarah Lund in TV’s The Killing, who as Queen Margaret tries to save her husband, her sons and her adopted country from themselves. Audiences will not have to look hard for resonances with Scotland’s independence debate, not least given the admiration of many independence supporters for Nordic economic and political models.
“Who would want the job of ruling Scotland?” demands the Danish queen of the Scottish parliament – and the Edinburgh theatre audience. “I come from a rational nation with reasonable people . . . You’ve got fuck-all except attitude.”
Queen Margaret means it kindly, however, and Munro is too smart to take any clear side in the debate. The James Plays are a reminder that Scotland was once a nation that made its own way in the world, but also that its road was seldom easy and often made harder by the self-interest of its fractious elites.
Scottish Nationalists can see The James Plays as a demonstration of the richness of historical material and modern talent that might be better mined in an independent nation. Advocates for continued union can note that the plays are themselves a product of fruitful co-operation between the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Great Britain.
James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock
James II: Day of the Innocents
James III: The True Mirror