THE cry ‘Whaur’s yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?’ first uttered at the 1756 premiere of John Home’s play, Douglas, has echoed down the years in the legends associated with Scottish theatre. It is not sober to reissue it now, not even after watching Rona Munro’s magnificent trilogy, and not only because the author begged critics to avoid facile comparisons with the Bard. However, it is wholly sane to respond with joy and admiration to the exhilarating theatrical experience which is the James Plays.
Let us get Shakespeare out of the way first. As the Bard had done with the Plantagenets, Munro takes as her subject the reigns of the first three Stewart monarchs when the dynasty ruled only in Scotland. As with his history plays, the country is seen from the perspective of the royal court, with its attendant ambitions, treacheries, conspiracies and sly malice. There is a touch of Lady Macbeth in Isabella Stewart, wife of the ousted Regent of Scotland during the minority of James I, there is a Banquo-type ghost scene at a dinner organised by James II who is haunted by recollections of his childhood past, there are moments when the same James resembles Prince Hal with William Douglas as the roisterer whom he outgrows, and there are occasional, presumably deliberate, echoes of languages, as the reference to James’s children as ‘little chicks,’ the term used by MacDuff when told of the slaughter of his family.
But then forget Shakespeare or any other writer and focus on the breadth, depth, music, drama, pathos, humour and occasional touches of poetry in the midst of humdrum prose that mark Munro’s writing. Nothing could be further from the standard depiction of bourgeois virtues and vices. Munro takes as her subject the prime appetites, the lusts, jealousies, miseries, inadequacies and innate violence of the human animal, and implies, not in rhetoric but in dramatic action, that these forces are not equal in men and women. That is not to say that the women are bloodless maternal figures, for they are as prone to nastiness as the male of the species.
The work has the complexity and range not of an overture but of a symphony, with characters coming together to discuss the selfhood of Scotland and the looming presence of England before transcending local borders to consider the demands of power, the see-saw of love, the morals of kingship and the impact of personality, weak or strong, in politics. These matters are not only debated in chambers but brought alive in vivid scenes of ambition, rivalry between fathers and sons, shifting power between spouses, hatred between families, the pull of rank, the desire for status and the hunger for possession.
As a rule of thumb, a history play or historical novel is one that features ways of thought and styles of action arising from events or a culture specific to one precise period of history. Without ever being history lessons these plays conform to that notion, but while they succeed in creating a plausible, engaging view of Scotland and its monarchs in the fifteenth century, they subtly invite consideration of this world as a metaphor for today’s. They are strong in questioning and indifferent to banal didacticism. Perhaps they are never more strongly plays for today than in their portrayal of the power and personality of women. Munro, author of Bold Girls, will not shy away from describing herself as feminist, so it should come as no surprise if the queens here emerge not only as carefully drawn personalities in themselves but as balanced, forceful counterweights to the inadequacies of their kingly spouses. At one point, it occurred to me that the trilogy could have been entitled, Two Jameses and One Margaret, the last one being the Danish consort of James III, or even Three Queens, for the women, not only Margaret, invariably emerge not so much as the powers behind the throne but as the ones who ought to be its occupants.
It is expected that in a trilogy some unity in development should be fashioned. The court of James I, in The Key Shall Keep the Lock, is peopled by hairy, uncouth noblemen, who toss bones over their shoulders as they eat at table, while the court of James II, in Day of the Innocents, is a more advanced but scary and fearful place, still totally inward looking and uninterested in foreign enterprises, but the court of James III, in The True Mirror, is a sophisticated Renaissance environment, as is clear from the delicate, floral decoration which embellishes what had previously been bare wall, as well as from the refined speculations of the Danish queen. At the same time, Munro was willing to disturb the expectations of her audience, even those formed as the trilogy unfolds.
The first play is essentially dynastic and political, with clashes and battles on stage and the emergence to real power of the king after eighteen year’s captivity in England. But the audience took their seats for the second play to see a disconcertingly different approach, in which the psychology of a broken man was at its core. Most critics have viewed this play as the weakest, and perhaps it was, but it was essentially an inner drama with real depth of psychological insight. The movement from the male to the female exercise of power is evident throughout and is completed in The True Mirror, where the core of the action concerns the relations between the royal couple, reaching a climax when Margaret emerges regally from her husband’s shadow to offer her help to challenge Scotland’s ingrained view of herself. It is in the focus on Scotland’s unsteady, uncertain willingness to assume responsibility for herself that the real unity of the trilogy lies.
For the whole production, the cooperative endeavour which is the heart of theatre is effortlessly successful and complete. Jon Bausor’s splendidly imagined set is essentially unchanging throughout yet seems flexible and adaptable. At the centre is a giant sword plunged deep into the ground as a reminder, presumably, of Scotland’s potential for civil violence, although it also resembles a cross. The circular walls around the performing area create an arena either for public action or domestic peace, or sometimes the two simultaneously. People seated in rows on the stage behind the action can be pressed into business as members of the Scottish Parliament, while the corridors between their seats extend the stage and allow space for midnight action. At the raised centre between these spectators stands the throne, often unoccupied as the centre of action moves elsewhere. Laurie Sansom’s direction is masterly. He pushes the action forward with fluent panache, and if he never misses an opportunity for the pageantry of processions with sumptuous ecclesiastical or courtly costume and the beating of drums, he also skilfully slows the rhythms to allow the emotions of the domestic scenes to emerge in all their clarity.
The power of the opening scene arises from the spectacle of defeat on a battlefield in France, where James I, Scotland’s poet-king, had fought alongside Henry V of England, the protagonist of Shakespeare’s most stridently patriotic work. Here Henry is a swaggering bully, who torments both James and the captured Scottish lords who had fought on the French side. Those who wish to construct sub-plots could follow from this the vicissitudes of Peter Forbes’ multi-faceted portrayal of Balvenie, who develops across two plays from a snivelling wretch in chains to landed lord and then to psychopathic father and a threat to the realm. James is subsequently offered his freedom and the hand of Joan, whom he had never met, and the encounter and burgeoning relationship between the couple is conveyed with delicate flair by James McArdle and Stephanie Hyam. The Scots lords are unaccustomed to submitting to any man, even one who would be king, so the episodes in Scotland portray personal animosities, scuffles, duels and rage by loutish patricians fearful of loss of land and prestige. Blythe Duff gives a mighty performance as the matriarchal Isabella Stewart, resentful of any encroachment by the new monarchs on her family’s power, and prepared to show the young queen a drawn dagger. When the inevitable armed encounter between the king who is attempting to create a stable state and the Stewart family who had exercised Regent’s power arrives, Munro shows a touch of brilliant acuity and inventiveness in bringing onto the battlefield not only the rebel Stewarts but the ghostly Henry V himself. James simultaneously faces his own past as downtrodden, derided captive and his future as ruler.
In the critical opening scene of Day of the Innocents, the giant sword bursts into flames over a puppet, designating the infant king, brought out of a box, which could be his refuge or his life. Perhaps he always remains the child the tragic circumstances of his upbringing had made him, in spite of the promptings of his queen (again Stephanie Hyam, in a different tone) who tells him that he has no need to be afraid of his courtiers and advisers, since he is king. Andrew Rothney switches mood with devastating swiftness in his portrayal of this unstable monarch, forced unwillingly to confront Livingston, who had held power during his minority, and later his boyhood mate, William Douglas. The two cavort like football hooligans, until William overreaches himself, and James turns on him, but he reverts to being, in the presence of the aghast women who surround him, no more than a ‘messy wee bairn,’ neither intellectually nor emotionally whole. Perhaps the psychological insight of this work would have been better appreciated had it not been part of a trilogy grappling with grand political themes.
And these are to the forefront in The True Mirror, which opens with a ceilidh featuring a modern jeunesse dorée, bibbing vintage wine. James III is already married to his Danish queen, played magnificently by Sophie Gabrol with a calm command and control which are the qualities her puerile, petulant and paranoiac husband lacks. Jamie Sives has the most demanding part in this gallery of memorable characters, but rises to the task of incarnating a man in breakdown, fooling in public when he should be majestic, falling short of what is needed for the rule of a still wobbly state. When he finally creates his own fiasco in front of the Three Estates, preferring to romp senselessly and offensively with his male lover, it is Margaret who steps forward to address the lords of the kingdom, and the people in the stalls, with the words ‘Who would want to rule Scotland?’ Her answer comes in the most debated and least poetical line of all three plays, ‘You know the problem with you lot? You’ve got fuck-all except attitude.’
That is an assertion, however ironically phrased, that will be put to the question in a few days on 18 September. In Ireland, Yeats, Synge and O’Casey used the stage to express divergent views which accompanied the nation’s move towards self-government. Rona Munro’s trilogy performs the same function. It is not loudspeaker theatre, any more than the Irish plays were, but it enhances Scotland’s theatre and provides a provocative platform for discussion of the choices facing the country.
The James Plays,
Rona Munro, National Theatre of Scotland and National Theatre of Great Britain.
Edinburgh International Festival run ended.
Currently playing at the Olivier Theatre, London.