The subtitle of James III is The True Mirror, which is taken rather more literally than you might expect. There is an actual mirror, of– as King James III explains– special Venetian make, more accurate than any mirror ever created before. It sets off one of the most striking sequences in the entire play, a series of characters seeing themselves clearly, literally, for the first time. What one is capable of doing with this knowledge seems to be the root question of the third and final installment of the National Theatre’s James Plays.
On the one hand, there’s King James III, who has taken from the violent death of his father and his over-protective mother the inflated sense of his self worth and God-given right to rule that rarely ends well for kings. Then there’s his queen consort, Margaret of Denmark, who probably deserves to be the title character. The third in Rona Munro’s line of foreign Queens of Scots finding their way amongst a suspicious people and occasionally feckless husbands, Margaret is faced with the most extreme version of this situation: an utterly hopeless, useless King and the opportunity to prevent civil war between father and son by seizing power for herself.
Much more deliberately paced than the previous two parts, the action doesn’t really kick in until the second act here. James III’s indolent court looks like that of so many bad kings through history: lavish, broke, littered with favorites with whose relationship with James may or may not be entirely platonic. If James I and James II had to learn to sacrifice their souls, James III has avoided the problem by deciding to seize all the perks of being a king and none of the responsibilities. It is, frankly, a less interesting question than that posed by the previous two plays.
The title points to James, but the real story arc seems to lie with Margaret, resulting in what feels like torn loyalties in the creative team between telling the real story here (Margaret’s, or perhaps her son’s, heir apparent Prince Jamie) and staying true to the “James Plays” conceit. Director Laurie Sansom departs sharply from the aesthetics of the previous two plays with a flashy, modern look– I wished at times that Munro had been equally willing to depart structurally from the preceding plays as well. After all, Shakespeare named a play Henry VI even though the titular monarch doesn’t appear until halfway through.
The ending is very exciting, though, and it contains some of the most visually arresting moments of staging in the entire trilogy. The final scene was moving, and I can easily imagine that it would be an utter gut-punch coming at the end of a three-show marathon day.
I’m excited about the sudden prevalence of history plays here (and also with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions project, which seems to be supplying most of the American history plays that are appearing in New York City and elsewhere). Obviously this is partly because of my own tastes– I just love historical fiction– but I’m also happy that the theatre seems to be re-embracing a genre that is uniquely suited to our capabilities. It’s very difficult for a play to be as timely as a newscast or a sketch show can be. But a history play can be thoughtful, slow to create, and incisively political all at once, as long as it’s in the hands of a clever playwright. The murmurings and mumblings that each James Play would occasionally provoke seem good proof of that: the audience was plainly alive to references and allusions and ideas in a way that I, admittedly, could not be, as neither a Brit nor someone well-versed in Scottish history.
So, I’m excited in turn by the James Plays’ success: because they’re history plays; because they’re long, dense, political works that have found commercial and popular acclaim; because I hope they are only one stop in a much bigger trend.