Review – Day of the Innocents (James play #2) – National Theater of Scotland at National Theater

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A week after seeing The Key Will Keep the Lock (James play #1), I was practically panting to get in to see James play number two, Day of the Innocents. I’d done my usual thing of keeping an entire media blackout, though to be honest the media was filled with nothing but Scottish independence anyway (though not really talking about the play). I was ready for another two and a half hours of nation building, politics and family conflict told through a false window of history, the better to focus on the actual historical events playing out every day. (It sounded like near civil war – very appropriate given how things were happening on stage.) Forget Henry V … there was a new king in my heart, a new mythos for the 21st century.

And what I got was … well, remember how for James #1 there’s a long backstory about how James I was held prisoner for most of his youth … but we join the story as he is finally given the reins of leadership? Well, for James II, instead we get to watch the boring part, where the young king, portrayed simultaneously with a puppet and with an adult actor (Andrew Rothney – a lot of this seems to be an extended nightmare, but it bleeds over into memory), lives with the insecurity of being a pawn whose very life in in other people’s hands. When he’s not being physically manipulated (ooh the puppet metaphor, so obvious), he’s got good old Isabella Stewart to mess with his head and his “keeper,” Balvenie, making all the decisions poor James is too young to be troubled with.

The pivot of this story is really the relationship between James and Balvenie’s son, William Douglas (Mark Rowley), whom I think we’re supposed to see as a good natured buddy of the king, in no way a threat to the throne. Oddy, in his disinterest, he becomes the embodiment of what I felt these plays have been promoting as the Scottish values – independence of mind, financial self-sufficiency, pride – made ugly by cruelty and arrogance (appropriate values for the times, mind). But his change from “I just want to be your friend” to “Bugger off, Mr Supposed King Man” just doesn’t make sense. And the final conflict between him and his former friends similarly doesn’t make sense – it’s just tacked on with no exposition to explain the evolution of each of them from bosom buddies to snarling curs.

Sadly, the play spends ages showing Balvenie working with and against his son as he tries to set him up to successfully fight for kingship. But for some reason the play doesn’t spend nearly enough time working on this. Fine, James II was a boring king: but that’s no excuse to make this a boring play. If the interest is in the people that threatened his throne, then make them the center of this play. Frankly, spending nearly an hour watching a puppet whinging on stage had my sympathies swayed to the side represented by flesh and blood people. No excuses for this one, people; the third had damned well be better than this was.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, September 16th, 2014. It continues through October 29th.)

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