THE JAMES PLAYS - JAMES II The Festival theatre Edinburgh Saturday 6th February


We open this one pretty soon after James I has been murdered by his court and the six year old boy is now James II.  A bit oddly at first we meet James II (Andrew Rothney) and his childhood friend William Douglas (Andrew Still) as adults paying young children.  It takes a little time to adjust to this, but that is the magic of theatre, it makes you believe what is not in front of you at times.  This play very much centres on these two as they grow apart once William Douglas inherits his father’s title, estates and powers. 

This young King though is very quickly taken house prisoner by Livingston, Earl and keeper of Stirling Castle (John Stahl) and is nothing more than a “puppet king” with no power, doing what he is told, and that position remains so until adulthood.  Looking after the young King throughout all of this is his faithful Meg (Sally Reid).

While James I covered history on a larger court scale, this play concentrates more on the psychology and relationships of James II and William Douglas as they grow up.  Both have some serious mental health issues and although these issues can be contained as children, their positions and power as adult make them both very dangerous people and a clash between the two is inevitable.

Also making another strong appearance here is Blythe Duff as Isabella Stewart.  This time however it not as the previous woman of great power but one who is more than slightly deranged from her years of solitary imprisonment  (ordered by James I) and watching from a window  facing the sea birds that she believes are the souls of her murdered sons.

Rosemary Boyle re-creates her role of Queen Joan again here but also plays Mary (wife of James II) from France.  Surprisingly for someone brought up in the extravagance of the French Court, Mary likes her Scottish court.

Peter Forbes portrayal of Balvenie of the Douglas family really develops in this play and it is interesting that as he acquires through guile and carefull planning the lands he always craved that he becomes as big a tyrant to his family as others were to him in his youth.

I still have to watch James III and it is a regret that I never managed due to time to watch all three performances today as it is a bit like breaking a magic spell as everyone so carefully pulls you into this world of an old Scottish court.  Yes the language is contemporary, and yes the facts are tweaked a little at times, but these works bring to life wonderfully a period in time that historically is often overlooked.  A period where land ownership meant everything, status, power, wealth and that was all carefully controlled by careful marriage

arrangements with one purpose only to increase that land and power.  This was also a time when power meant you took what you wanted from anyone not strong enough to stand up to you.

There are many things in these works that I am leaving out as they cover such a huge scope of history that this review would be pages long otherwise, but bringing it all to life is pretty much the perfect theatrical package of writing, direction, stage settings, costumes, music and of course cast.   This may only be February, but “The James Plays” have pretty much set the standard that everything else will have to meet this year (and probably for many years to come)

Review by Tom King