Review: James III

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. 

Review: James I and James II

For the record, the title of the first two parts of The James Plays at the National Theatre are The Key Will Keep the Lock and Day of The Innocents, respectively. I could not for the life of me remember either of these all day, and in fact misremembered the second play’s title the first time I typed it out. But you’re in good shape when the only uninteresting thing about your play is the title. The first two of the three James Plays are sharp, exciting, and moving contemporary versions of a Shakespearean history play. 

It’s quite exciting to see, for once, a history play in which I knew absolutely none of the history. Admittedly, this came to result in some missed moments (is a lord furiously declaring to his king that his people will hate him forever prophetic, or ironic?), but it also made it easy to accept Rona Munro’s plays as the exciting dramas– I would even go so far as to say tragedies– that they are. 

Some of Shakespeare’s history plays, including Richard III and King John, were variously billed as histories and tragedies, which reflects the uncertain place this emergent dramatic form held in the early modern period. But it also draws attention to how often a history play– especially a history play centered around a single figure– can look very similar to a fictional tragedy. At least in the first two parts of the James Plays, Munro seems to be suggesting that you cannot tell a story about a king that is not a tragedy. As Shakespeare himself explored before her, it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that becoming a good king (or a good political ruler of any kind, for that matter) means selling part of your soul. 

There is something really striking about seeing such self-consciously Shakespearean plays telling Scottish history in the same year as an independence referendum. The ghost of Shakespeare is, in some ways, addressed head on in the first scene of James I, where the first king to enter and speak is not James himself, but King Henry V (Jamie Sives, who returns as James III), here portrayed as a blustering, swearing bully who nevertheless makes good use of his short reign. It’s also a useful warning shot: the titles and structures may suggest Shakespeare’s histories, but this is a place where his heroes are turned upside down, the saviors and villains of the history of the British Isles inverted.  

At the beginning of James I, King James I has spent 18 years as a captive in the courts of Henry V and Henry IV, and has passed the years studying history and writing love poetry (some of which is used as lyrics in the very lovely songs– performed by  ensemble member Fiona Wood and composed by Paul Leonard-Morgan– interspersed throughout the play). The tremendously good James McArdle is stammering, unassuming, and easily cowed by the forceful Henry, who humiliates him in front of a band of aristocratic Scottish prisoners, then orders him to return to Scotland for the first time in his adult life to secure English interests there, including forcing peace on the borders and raising the money for his own ransom. 

Aside from various modern stylistic choices, and of course a modern vocabulary of expletives, one of the ways Munro diverges most strikingly from a Shakespearean model– and indeed, from the pattern of historical films and plays today– is her dedication to creating a place for female characters. A sequence in which a battlefield and childbed are simultaneously present onstage exemplifies Munro’s insistence that the devalued roles of women are equally historically important as the battles and treaties guided by men. In James I, this is displayed primarily by her sensitive portrayal of Joan (Stephanie Hyam), James’s 17-year-old English consort. 

From King Henry’s opening attempts to instruct James on how to be a ruthless king like himself, to the gradual revelation of the real reasons behind James’s imprisonment, Munro expertly weaves James’s life story in and over on itself, each incident and episode echoing alongside what we’ve heard and learned and seen and been warned until it culminates at last in a truly moving final battle against an unexpected enemy I have no wish to spoil. It was in this sequence that my lack of knowledge of history was most exciting: I had no idea what was going to happen, and only Munro’s excellently crafted framework to guide my expectations. 

James II moves at a blistering pace, feeling rather shorter than James I, even though it clocked in ten minutes longer at our performance. Though no Englishmen appear, I couldn’t help but think about Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV, as it too tells the parallel stories of a prince and a nobleman’s son, one learning to come into his own and the other apparently destined to be a disappointment. But unlike Prince Hal and Hotspur, King James II and William Douglas are best friends from childhood– which we learn through a fascinating flashback/dream sequence that mixes light, dance, and puppetry to tell the blood-soaked story of James II’s childhood and accession to the throne at age 6. 

James II (Andrew Rothney), marked by a vibrant wine-stain birthmark on his face and still controlled by a regency government at age 19, is lively but unstable, plagued by violent nightmares of his past and unable to control the acts his regents undertake in his name. Meanwhile, William (Mark Rowley) is a drinking, raiding, high-spirited disgrace to his physically and verbally abusive father, whom we have seen connive his way from the simpering, landless Balvenie in James I into the Earl of Douglas (Peter Forbes).

James II is less tightly constructed than its predecessor– the fascinating nightmare sequences drop away, and in the second act overall it feels as if important steps on James and William’s emotional journeys have been elided. But it all ties together in the end, if not quite as perfectly as James I, as resonantly and in a more viscerally shocking way. 

Munro and director Laurie Sansom draw neat lines between the first two parts, both in lines that echo each other across plays and in clever double-casting– Henry V and James III, as mentioned above, but also Stephanie Hyam as both James’s foreign wives, Andrew Rothney as a rebellious lordling in James I, and Gordon Kennedy as a pair of very different regents. I expect more will emerge in part three. 

Judging by other critics, who insist that the plays be taken as a trilogy, it seems inappropriate to say anything conclusively until I’ve seen James III. So all I will say is that I’m looking forward to it very much.