THE JAMES PLAYS - JAMES III The Festival theatre Edinburgh Friday 12th February


It’s been nearly a week since I reviewed James I and James II together as part of their “all three James Plays in a day performances”, so I was on the one hand interested to see how this trilogy ended, and on the other hand curious to see how this last play stood up on its own merits.

The first thing  that struck me immediately about “James III” is that this is a far different court from the previous two, as the French and European influence of music, brighter colours, and the different arts are starting to make their mark on the once dull coloured and dour Scottish Court.

This lighter almost party atmosphere is highlighted by a little pre-show before each act of the cast having a small ceilidh but instead of using period music we have a re-working of “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League.  I have to admit that this music choice puzzled me a bit until I thought about some of the lyrics in the song. Even the title is apt.

This party atmosphere of course masks huge issues that were going on both at the Royal Court and Scotland as a nation.  Yes, James III (Matthew Pidgeon) may have been a King with a great liking for “The Arts & Culture”, and the finer things in life (particularly his love of French wine), but he was also a King spending far beyond his fiscal income.  Add to this a King who had re-taken much land and its  income from his nobles, little interest in defence against the English and little interest in meeting with his Parliament – “The Three Estates”, honouring any agreements or pledges made with them, and even less it seems in the Scottish people, then you start to see the problem. 

One other main difference about this play compared to the others is the humour that is on a far more light-hearted level than the previous two plays.  This is far removed from ever being a comedy, but even the humour in the previous two plays had far darker tones.

Matthew Pidgeon is a larger than life James III bringing wonderfully to the stage all the vanity and arrogance that only someone born into power and privilege and being told all their life that they are “so special” can have.  It is easy to see how such a King would grow to be hated by his court and advisors.  James III may have appeared outwardly a far softer King than his predecessors, but that hid a ruthlessness to anyone he thought had the power to oppose him, and that extended to his own brother Sandy (Steven Miller) and his own sons – particularly the young Jamie (later to be King James IV) played by Dabiel Cahill. Daniel develops this charachter in many intersting ways as we progress though the years.

The only limited control over James III and voice of reason comes from his wife Queen Margaret (Malin Crepin).  Queen Margaret was Danish, very practical, good at household accounts and, as we find out, loved Scotland far more than her husband, and in the end was the only person who stopped what would have been a bitter civil war at the time. 

Malin’s portrayal of Queen Margaret works on more than one level, and is actually to me a more interesting character than James III in many ways.  It is interesting to watch her transformation from the brightly dressed Queen resplendent in jewellery that was how James III wanted, to a woman who sees her true image reflected for the first time in a Venetian mirror (bought for her birthday with the cruellest of intentions from her husband) and likes the woman that she sees underneath all the fakery.  A nice portrayal of a woman of a certain age just feeling comfortable with her own self.

A nice counterpart to this acceptance of herself is what Daisy (Fiona Wood) at seventeen years of age sees in this mirror.  Daisy at this time has been raised up from the position of laundry maid to the King’s openly seen mistress.  This mirror has an interesting effect on all the different women who see their true reflections in it for the first time.

David Mara standing in tonight for an injured Andrew Rothney is an interesting Lord Cochrane, but we do get to see too little of this character and are simply told at one point that he was now dead.

Ali Craig as John, Head of the Privy Council, gets a far larger part here to play.  John at one point sees himself not only as a replacement lover for Queen Margaret, but also co-ruler of Scotland with her.  John does have a pretty one dimensional element to him of a humourless person devoted to work and duty only, and that does at times give Ali Craig little room to develop the part.

Holding the continuity line together between James II and James III is Blythe Duff who plays an older princess Annabella (aunt to James III) and it is in part Blythe Duff’s skill as an actress that holds these two plays together as a continuity of story line.

The end scenes with the soon to be James IV do take a few liberties with recorded history, but do make great theatre, and it is nice to see how the Coronation jewellery of James IV tie him into all the previous James Kings.

There are some things going on subtly in the background here, and one of the most interesting is the way that careful stage lighting from doorways left and right and other sources start to form the Scottish flag on the stage floor.  This Saltire also slowly changes colour from a subtle grey tone to a more very definite blue as the narrative progresses at this point.  This effect was probably better seen from the circle looking down (where I was) than the stalls though.

“James III” has a completely different feel to it than the previous plays, but fits in well and ties up the trilogy.  I think next time that I go to see these plays though that I will try and see all three together if possible as, although they stand alone on their own merits, it is best to see them altogether and really appreciate the huge historical scope that they cover.

Do I have a favourite here out of all these plays…well yes for me it was definitely James I as there were simply more interesting power struggles going on and more powerful characters to watch.  James II and James III had during their reigns by whatever means necessary pretty much slowly removed anyone who had the power to oppose them.

Review by Tom King