THE JAMES PLAYS The Festival theatre Edinburgh Saturday 6th February


Every now and then, if you are lucky, something very special comes to the stage,  lights it up so brightly with its scope and vision that you know immediately that this is a piece of work that be around for a very long time to come.

“The James Plays” trilogy by Rona Munro and directed by Laurie Sansom is one of those rare events.  To produce any one of these works would have in itself been good but to produce all three of them – simply an outstanding piece of vision and work (I admit at time of writing that I still have to watch James III but others tell me it has to be seen too).

These plays cover (as you might guess from the name) King James I, II and III of Scotland and that period between the late 14th century and 15th century that their reigns covered. 

The first thing to say about these plays is that they are based on history but are not a 100% recreation of known facts.  Rona Munro is quick to point out in the programme that some liberties have been taken along the way with some things and that names have sometimes been altered slightly or new characters introduced to represent known protagonists at the time, and I have no problem with that.  This is work written for the stage and some changes/leaps of imagination were always going to be necessary to make the huge scope of this story work.  The roots of everything are however firmly rooted in historical fact but written in modern dialogue and a fashion that makes this work accessible to a modern audience and not just historical academics.  This is a body of work that probably gives a good representation of the brutality of court politics of the day and the main figures involved.

Today (Saturday 6th) was a “James Play Day” with all three performances available.  Time today only allowed me to be at the first two plays, but I am correcting that later in the week.

It is difficult to review a work like this without touching on the history, but I will try to keep that to a minimum.

The set for this play is the first thing that you notice.  There are public seats at the back of the stage recreating a part “in the round” stage of old.  The people with these seats are right in the centre of some of the action but very clever lighting hides them most of the time.  On stage we have a realistic period interior of solid wood, functional as it would have been and pretty drab.  No time for unneeded adornment here, this was a court of nobility who were pretty much “warlords”.

Also immediately obvious and setting the tone are the costumes…browns, ochres, duller colours, some leather and thankfully no historically inaccurate Tartans.

Steven Miller (James I) gives an outstanding performance here as we meet James as an adult who has been in English hands since his kidnap/capture as he was being sent to France for safety as a boy.  His detention at the court lasted for 18 years and in that time he even served with the English army against the French and on his release and return to Scotland in 1824 brought with him his English Queen – Joan (cousin of England’s King Henry V).

Coming to Scotland is to say the least a major culture shock for Queen Joan (Rosemary Boyle) used to the refinement of an English court, but it is even more of a shock for King James I who has grown up with watching King Henry V in total command of his court and comes home to take a throne which has been ruled by his family for nearly 30 years.  John Stahl as Murdac Stewart gives us a fine performance as a man trying to keep his very dangerous and warring sons under control and at the same time hold onto his own power.  Blythe Duff as Isabella Stewart (Regent Consort) is outstanding here as a women reluctant (to say the least) to give up her power and status to the new King and even more reluctant to see it taken from her three sons. 

Helping Queen Joan adjust to Scottish life is Meg (Sally Reid).  At times, Meg seems to be the only person keeping a frightened young Queen safe and her devotion to the King and his children becomes even more important in James II.

King James I learns pretty quickly how to be as brutal in his consolidation of his power as his warlords...he has learned well from his teacher Henry V of England.

Also worth watching out for is Peter Forbes portrayal of Balvenie of the Douglas family. Here he is physically one of the weakest of the family members, but guile rather that brute strength bring him his long sought after rewards in James II..

There are no weak links in these performances.  The continuity of characters is what binds these stories together as we follow them over the years.  Where required the cast members take on more than one role too. 

Review by Tom King