Matthew Pidgeon talks about the kings and I

Matthew Pidgeon in The James Plays
Matthew Pidgeon in The James Plays
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AN American, playing England’s Henry V, then Scotland’s James III in the National Theatre of Scotland’s James Plays - it’s hardly surprising Matthew Pidgeon often feels like an outsider looking in.

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, the actor was brought up in the Capital, after his scientist father brought the family here when he landed a job at Heriot-Watt University - his son was just two at the time.

So does Pidgeon, now based in London, consider himself American, Scottish or English?

“It’s a good question and a difficult one to answer,” he confesses.

“I don’t think of myself as being American - I was just over there for four months with The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Wolf Hall and I didn’t feel like I was American at all,” he says.

“My parents are English and I grew up in Edinburgh, so as a kid I always had a sense of being ‘other’.

“Then, when I went to London, I felt very Scottish. So I don’t know, I guess I feel Scottish but have that feeling of never truly coming from wherever I’m living.”

Pidgeon, who has resided with his wife and children in London since 1997, has been a familiar face at the Traverse and Lyceum in the past, but it is now four years since he was here last, and he senses a change.

“Without getting too political, it’s funny, because I’m here doing the most Scottish play, playing a medieval king of Scotland, and yes, having not lived here for a long time, I sense a real change in the place... and that is an outsider’s view.”

Bringing him ‘home’ is Rona Munro’s trilogy of plays charting the reigns of James I, James II and James III. They return to the Festival Theatre this week, where they were first performed as part of the 2014 International Festival.

They bring to life three generations of Stewart kings who ruled Scotland from 1406-1488.

James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock explores the complex character of a king who was a poet, a lover, a law-maker but also the product of a harsh political system.

In James II: Day of the Innocents, harmless games merge with murderous intent in a violent royal playground of shifting realities and paranoia.

Finally, in James III: The true Mirror, Pidgeon dons the regalia as the focus is turned on the women of the royal court.

“It is an absolute joy. It’s a great play, James is a really extreme character and is a lot of fun, I love it,” he says.

“This is my debut in the role. We’ve just done the technical and dress rehearsals and we got them all up and running in one day - that was quiet an experience. I’d say, seeing all three plays in one day is the way to do it.”

In the past, rightly or wrongly, Munro’s works have been likened by some to those of Shakespeare.Pidgeon, who has worked extensively at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London interprets that comparison as being to do with the sheer scale of both.

“What Shakespeare does brilliantly are big stories laced with small, personal, intimate stuff that we can all relate to and Rona has that in the James Plays too.

“There is a similar idea of scope, the sweeping spectacular scale of it,” he explains.

“So we have this epic, but, actually, it’s the relationships within we find identifiable.

“In part one we have this young man coming back to his country and struggling to deal with what he has left behind.

“Part two has two young friends growing up together, and in part three we have a king who is going off the rails and his marriage is coming apart. It actually gets quite domestic.”

All three plays have been updated since their debut, including the excising of a particularly annoying puppet from the second one.

“The puppet has been ritually slaughtered,” laughs Pidgeon. “The second play has changed hugely. I saw it the other day and loved it. It’s very clear and upsetting, I found it very moving.

“But the fact that casts have changed makes the plays different too. Many of the actors have changed roles and, of course, there are new actors as well.

“Essentially we have gone back to the drawing board.”

While the infamous puppet may have gone, another artistic choice remains. Unlike the first two plays, which are performed in medieval dress, the third is played in modern day costume.

“We don’t play James III like a historical epic, it’s very modern and indeed the clothes are modern, it’s a bit of a mixture,” says Pidgeon.

“The others, with their chain-mail, swords and armour, have a much more medieval feel, but we don’t play the third like that, which I believe makes it easier.

“I’ve just spent the best part of two years in Tudor dress for Wolf Hall - it’s nice to get a change.”

Joining Pidgeon as James I and II are Steven Miller and Andrew Rothney, all three share a dressing room and are proving supportive of each other, says the 40-year-old.

“Both Andy and Steven are also in James III, they play other significant roles and are incredibly supportive. We have a great relationship. And I have a cameo in the first play. I play Henry V, the great king of England. I insist on just playing kings,” he laughs, “but being born in America, really, I should be against all that lark.”

The James Plays, Festival Theatre, tomorrow-13 February, various times, £21-£36, 0131-529 6000

For schedule of performance times visit edtheatres.com/james