Murderous men

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It was not by accident that „The James Plays“ were staged at the Edinburgh Festival just before the Scottish Referendum on September 18. The drama trilogy will soon be in London.

He stands up on the stairs and looks down on his subjects. „Scotland will be small. But it will be whole“, James I. declares, to which the clan elders fall to their knees and swear their loyalty to the new king. It’s hard not to get the feeling that King James is only talking to his peers and not to all of us, too. „I always wanted to vote Yes! at the referendum“, says a young Scottish woman in the intermission of the first part of the trilogy, „but this speech really moved me.“

„The James Plays“ were conveniently scheduled for their world premiere as the centerpiece of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. On September 18 the Scots will vote in a referendum on whether or not their country should leave Great Britain and become an independent state. The National Theatre of Scotland commissioned the Scottish author and historian Rona Munro to write three dramas about the house of Stewart, which governed Scotland in the 15th century.

In the first part - „The Key will keep the lock“ - James I. returns to Scotland as king in 1424 after eighteen years in English prisons. He turns out to be a true king: determined and cruel. Part Two, „The Day of the Innocents“ shows how his son James II. battles his childhood traumas; after all he watched his daddy get slaughtered by conspirators at the age of six. Not much difference here for his own son, who ascends to the throne at only eight years after his father is killed in war. James III. then starts off well, creating a big and powerful Scotland under his rule in the 1470ties, which has and will never be matched. Unfortunately his ego is even bigger, turning him into a ruthless drunk tyrant who endangers his nation’s fate.

It was not an easy task for Rona Munro to fill the big shoes of William Shakespeare by writing historical king dramas. But the Scottish author manages it with a bearable lightness. The first and last plays show her talent best: through modern language and contemporary sense of humor and the pace of the 21st century she brings the medieval setting to life. The actors make up for any missing psychological depth - it is a brilliant cast. The Kings are played by James McArdle, Andrew Rothney and Jamie Sives respectively. However, Sofie Grabol – stage and TV star from Copenhagen (“The Killing”) - is the not so secret star of this performance.

Munro burdened Gabrol’s character to break through the usual king’s drama structure. We almost get the feeling that the author was sick of all these men killing all the other men - and women - in their eternal battle for power. She therefore picked queen Margaret, the loyal but ambitious wife of James III. to finish off the James Plays with a feminist note. Margaret, the queen who came from Denmark at the age of twelve, fights till the end for her husband, whom director Laurie Sansom portays as a tyrant rock star in red pants. It is not only her loyalty but her strong sense of power which direct her. In the second big monologue of „The James Plays“ she declares her love for Scotland, offers herself as ruler but also scolds the ruling elite: „You got fucking all but attitude!“

The trilogy therefore is not only a battle cry for Scottish independence. It shows that Scotland also profited from foreign influence. This is even evident with the production of the „The James Plays“ itself – it is a co-production with the National Theatre of Great Britain in London. As soon as the doors of the Edinburgh Festival close, the plays will come to London. The production is already almost sold out till the end of October.

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/series/the-james-plays

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz