Review: The James Plays by Rona Munro, Olivier stage (a co-production of the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Great Britain)

James McArdle as James I. Photo Manuel Harlan

James McArdle as James I. Photo Manuel Harlan

Some reviews come difficult and with some, I want to say everything at once. I can’t type fast enough, or think fast enough, like skipping and sliding and tripping across the immense pleasure of seeing the production and wanting to get it out there.

Because this is the thing about The James Plays. You can talk about themes (and Rona Munro leaves no stone unturned) and sweeping vision and the pregnancy of the ideas and the magnificence of the execution but what comes down to is the sheer pleasure and energy and balls of it all. It’s history plays with the audacity to be anything they want to be. What better way to set the ideas free than to sew them into the fabric of the play?

Talking of ideas, it’s obvious – but no less true – that it is about Scotland. It is. Always. Never forget that. But the specificity of the story allows it to be personal to everyone. It is about this country and then it is about every country. It is about loving and fighting what’s closer to you. It’s about men and women, together, separate, alone. It’s about death. Always.  It’s about fathers and sons. It’s about helpless, infuriating love, for a person, for a country. It’s about finding truth in yourself despite having no choices. It’s about sex. Always. And it’s about joy. About one clear day when everything is perfect.

The language has so much strength that, you imagine, with lesser actors, would break everyone in half. It has staccato rhythms and cliffhangers and silences full of smiles. That’s the other thing about the James plays: they are funny (up yours Shakespeare, you can barely make the comedies funny, let alone the histories). The monumental task of shaping the material falls into director Laurie Sanson, and I say this as the highest compliment: production and plays work seamlessly together, to the point I don’t know where the playwright ends and the director begins.

The set by designer Jon Bausor has the elegance but also the strength of the play. A sword thrust into the ground cuts the Olivier space in half and the audience hugs the stage on all sides. This no nonsense stuff, as much a set as it’s scaffolding for men and women to build, and playground for children to play, and a dance floor, and a battlefield, and a beach with the seabirds on the salty wind.

Andrew Rothney as James II. Photo Manuel Harlan

Andrew Rothney as James II. Photo Manuel Harlan

Seeing all three plays in one day isn’t essential, but this is the context I saw them and it does things to your brain that wouldn’t happen otherwise. Themes, even lines, jump from play to play and physical commitment of audience and cast (twelve hours in the same space on and off) breeds intimacy. Theatre is a physical act and seeing the actors for the better part of a day smashing it in all sort of different ways leaves you exhilarated: special mention to Andrew Rothney and Mark Rowley who have major parts in all three plays and across twelve hours fought, sang, danced, played football, were puppeteers and stage hands (the actors remove scenery, not only between scenes but at the interval as well). Not the final word on the cast but an important one: having great actors is one thing, having great actors working together in the most trilling way is a rare and deeply affecting joy.

James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock
This play starts at the gallows and finishes in prison. It’s about a man becoming a king, by stealth, by force, desire and necessity, and by leaving something behind. It’s the most muscular of the three plays, but only in the way Munro defines masculinity: funny, soulful, stubborn, by turns confident and hesitant, and unafraid of tenderness. James McArdle as James I carries these warring traits with deceptive ease, suggesting vulnerability and a poetic soul without undermining strength. His speech about Scotland is stirring, the moment he talks to his wife about his time in prison even more affecting. Jamie Sives as Henry V (and father figure) is forceful, bullying, brave in the face of death and infuriatingly charming (we will come back to this later). On a very basic level, their physical fight was pure adrenaline. Stephanie Hyam as Queen Joan is a winning combination of warmth and pragmatism and her initial meeting with McArdle’s James is delightfully humourous and very human. Blythe Duff as Isabella Stewart outshines the men for determination and force of will, and there is a price to pay.

James II: Day of the Innocents
This play is the most delicate of the three, with flights of fancy into darker worlds (it has been described as Pan’s Labyrinth, and it’s a good description). Initially, it’s unsteady on its feet with confusing action, but eventually it finds its mark when the story settles in the relationship between Mark Rowley’s William Douglas and Andrew Rothney’s James II (Rothney switching from his coarse Walter Stewart in the previous play to a sensitive, boyish portrayal of a troubled soul). It’s the story of two damaged children clinging onto each other and then losing sanity and any sense of self when forced apart. It’s the most disturbing and hopeless of the three, with a vision of cruelty inflicted not on the battlefield but on the young and innocent. Both Andrew Rothney and Mark Rowley are deeply affecting.

Jamie Sives as James III. Photo Robert Day

Jamie Sives as James III. Photo Robert Day

James III: The True Mirror
Public service announcement first: go to your seat ten minutes before the performance starts, you don’t want to miss the pre-show. With this out of the way, what a joy this play was. Not quiet, soulful, meditative joy but sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll , party in the streets joy. (Literally: the playlist includes Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’, Lorde’s ‘Royals’ and Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me, Baby?’. The one true unkindness of the production is the audience can’t dance when the cast does). This is Jamie Sives as James III, ballsy attitude and entitlement, charm wall to wall and a fabulous wardrobe, a king who doesn’t want to govern and damn if anyone will stop him. (In many ways, he is like Richard II – just less thoughtful if that’s possible). James III is wrong in so many ways but Jamie Sives makes him unrepentantly himself (a small part of me admired the sheer obstinance) and with small affecting moments (when he is at his most infuriating, he still gets upset because his wife kneels in front of him). It’s enough to understand the love others have for him, namely queen Margaret, played with magnificent poise, beauty and intelligence (and any other superlative you want to use) by Sophie Grabol. This is domestic on a large scale, the love that infuriates, cuts, struggles, and then starts all over again. Except – no distinctions – it is as much for a man as it is for a country. Queen Margaret, the foreigner, the woman who comes from elsewhere against her will and makes a home despite the odds, delivers the truths that escape everyone. You love her because she loves them, and you love them because they are loved by her. Marvellous job by Gordon Kennedy in this (and across three plays), and Fiona Wood and Daniel Cahill come out of the ensemble to give beautiful, radiant performances.

It’s three plays that look you straight in the eye. And they want you to look straight back. And in that space, something wonderful happens. I woke up the next day, still buzzing, and I thought to the day before and I could only think of the plays, the tiny and the big moments of the performance, as something that belonged to me. Not exclusively but also mine. Going to the theatre, I never wanted and will never want anything more.

Sofie Grabol as Queen Margaret, Jamie Sives as James III. Photo Robert Day

Sofie Grabol as Queen Margaret, Jamie Sives as James III. Photo Robert Day

4 responses to “Review: The James Plays by Rona Munro, Olivier stage (a co-production of the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Great Britain)

  1. Ah! Now I truly cannot wait! I won’t see them all in one day but James I and II on the next Saturday and then James III on Sunday. I read the playtext and I was rather worried about the second play – of its brutality and nightmarish look. I won’t say I am calm now but I am more excited than afraid which is good.

    • Seeing them like you do is the next best thing to seeing them in one day (and probably as good).

      The second part is more sad than scary (although I have a high threshold for scary stuff). And it has a joyful middle section.

  2. We’re so pleased to read that you enjoyed the productions so much. It has been a fantastic trip to get them to the London stage and it is wonderful to know that you have received them so well. We only hope that we can keep in your good books for the next time we’re in your area!

    • I really hope you can get more productions down south, and I promise to come up a few times!

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