Theatre review: The James Plays

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It’s over seven hours long, and has been in rehearsal for as many months and years in the writing. If there is one thing the National Theatre of Scotland’s James Plays don’t lack it’s ambition.

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To perform three plays back-to-back in one day makes this one of the most important events in Scottish theatre in memory, and in referendum year it couldn’t have been performed at a more appropriate time.

As much a triumph of industry as artistry, writer Rona Munro and director Laurie Sansom have attempted a Walter Scott job on a little-known period of Scottish history, to put the stories in a context from which modern audiences can make up their own minds.

In such a vast enterprise, some things work well, others less so and the deliberately ambiguous messaging will produce very different interpretations, particularly Queen Margaret’s declaration to Scotland that “You’ve got f*** all except attitude”. Given the house lights went up at that point, Munro/Sansom is talking to us, not just the Queen addressing a 15th century parliament.

There are excellent performances in all three shows; Sophie Grabol is a brilliantly controlled Queen Margaret and all three Jameses – James McArdle, Andrew Rothney and Jamie Sives – are riveting in very different ways. Blythe Duff is superb as the driven and furious Isabella Stewart in James I.

But the clear stand-out is Gordon Kennedy, with three very different but equally gripping performances as Murdac Stewart, Earl Livingston and John the Privy Councillor. Too bad he gets executed twice in one day.

To perform three such pivotal roles in three plays is one thing, but to bring such differing characterisation to what are essentially three middle-aged mediaeval aristocrats is no mean achievement. And to do it in one day is a triumph.

This is far from a dry history/politics lesson. For anyone with a passing interest in Scottish history these plays are must-sees; for lovers of the growing canon of excellent Scottish drama, essential.