History plays are hard to do right. The play has to reinvent the past for a contemporary audience, providing compelling renditions of historical figures while not straying too far from its source material, or it risks becoming inauthentic. Shakespeare nailed this formula, imbibing huge historical figures such as Richard III with enormous charisma, effectively providing the picture for how we view him today: a Machiavellian, hunchbacked schemer.
The James plays then thankfully achieve most of this with a lot of credibility, and set the benchmark for how history plays should be presented to a 21st century audience. They are abound with wonderful, complex personal relationships, as well as exploring grand themes of nationhood or what it means to belong to Scotland, arguments that have raced across time and are still so pertinent now.
The three plays, spanning the reigns of James I, II and III of Scotland for the best part of the 15th century, cover a dense period of exhilarating action. The first play, ‘James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock’, deals with James I’s rise to the throne after 18 years of English imprisonment and is full of wonderful action and low, primitive psychological conflict. The stage, dominated by ten-foot sword, becomes a symbol for the plays themes of bloody conflict, whether familial or with the colourful characters that inhabit Scotland.
Steven Miller plays James I in a terse, restrained manner, his emotions clearly raging inside him alongside his judgement, as he becomes more and more at odds with the barbaric ruling families of Scotland. He is portrayed as sensitive and is openly mocked for his poetry writing. A scene in which he attempts to woo his pragmatic but unfeeling wife (played by Rosemary Boyle) with his ineffective poetry feels resolutely modern, a relationship built on circumstance rather than feeling.
The play’s interest in the public and private spheres of a King’s life is done wonderfully; a scene early on in which the Scottish clansmen literally sit at the foot of the King’s bed on his wedding night is both comic and troubling, and with the double effect of the theatre audience, some sitting behind the stage (as I was), viewing this act was a brilliant highlight.
The play’s Scotland is one of unchecked disorder, the tension between James as a legitimate ruler and the families, ready to pounce at any sign of weakness, are what makes this first play a compelling watch right up to its brilliantly bloody conclusion, where an intricately choreographed scene of physical theatre ends a rollicking introduction to the world of the Jameses.
The second play builds on these themes. James II is a boy King with a blemished face, who is manipulated by the cruel Lord Livingstone to sign off policies ‘in the King’s name’, a motif that haunts the play. The play expands on the first’s themes of psychological conflict, James’ night terrors providing intense if confusing dream sequences, giving the audience an insight into the King’s mind. Like the first play, ‘James II: Day of the Innocents’ shows a conflicted Scotland, one of virtue being eroded by corrupt and powerful noblemen. Once again the use of the physical is sublime; a scene in which the King’s family takes on the Douglases in a game of ball looks so natural, but must have been painstakingly prepared for.
The play contains the performance of the trilogy from Andrew Still, playing Will Douglas, the King’s only friend as a child. His transformation from impish yet endearing child to something a whole lot more dangerous, all the while pressured by his horribly malevolent father, transcends his character, forming an argument about nationhood and the compromise between personal power and the good of the nation.
The third play, ‘James III: The True Mirror’ is the weakest of the three, and deals with James III’s extravagant and gaudy lifestyle at odds with the desires of Parliament, a new threat to the King’s sanctity as ruler. One of the finest comic moments of the trilogy comes when James issues a personal choir to follow him wherever he goes, and is a wonderful highlight. The costumes, somewhat jarringly a mix of period attire and 21st century, do little to add to the sense that this is a ‘more modern’ play, and although there are some fantastic moments of utter self-indulgence from James, I do not feel that the overall narrative of the play struck home as much as the first two.
Where the play loses its dramatic power was in its attempt to capitalise on the psychological insights of the first two. Using the newly developed mirror, the characters attempt to come to terms with ‘who they really are’, but it doesn’t feel genuine enough, the characters sometimes resorting to platitudes that boil down to “it’s what inside that matters.” Malin Crépin gives a strong lead performance as Queen Margaret, weathering the storm that her husband has created in a regal and composed manner, using her position as a Danish outsider to comment on the state of Scotland both in a funny and poignant manner.
Overall the plays all present Scotland as a place of vitality and hunger, a country conflicted yet with a hugely strong sense of identity. The plays, although serious in subject matter, never shy away from humour; many jokes about the weather in Scotland or more darkly comic moments abide. Although perhaps never going far enough in their explorations of nationhood, these historical plays are the definitive dramatic chronicle of the first three James Stewarts of Scotland.