“This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a whimper.” To some extent this was my emotional takeaway from The True Mirror, final installment of the James Plays at the National. Instead of giving us a lead character we could rally behind, we were given someone who seemed in need of a slap – rather like Richard II (as depicted by Shakespeare). James III (Jamie Sives) wants some wine, he wants some fancy clothes, he wants to get laid. Taking care of his kids? Taking care of his government? That’s boring: he wants to go hunting instead! In the face of his fecklessness and constant butterfly chasing, his poor wife Margaret (Sofie Gråbøl) winds up doing his work for him, holding the kingdom together while he gets excited about having a choir follow him everywhere and grumbling about not having enough money to do all of the things he’s excited about. And at some point, I have to say, James III’s grasp on reality starts to seem very, very tenuous.
This lead to this play turning into the story of Margaret of Denmark (James makes a big deal of mocking her for being from some place boring and having as her dowry some islands best known for sheep/human miscegenation). Margaret understands duty and fills in where James can’t be bothered, doing the accounts, attempting to make peace, and trying to raise a son who will be a worthy successor – or, in fact, better than his dad. Along the way, I found this became a story of middle aged female empowerment, as it’s smarts and hard work that help Margaret succeed in her efforts. She has work to do, and it transcends being pretty and seducing men – in fact, those aren’t her cares at all. In a world – the modern world – where looks are still very much how most women think their value lies, it’s refreshing and wonderful to watch a play in which a woman shows how it’s her accomplishments – not silly things like dancing and embroidery but patience, accounting and statemanship – that give a woman a reason to value herself.
Alongside this story – not a very exciting one, really – are a lot of what now feel like jokes about the Scottish nation and the Scottish personality. In light of the election failing to result in separation, listening to Margaret make comments about how “you Scots like to listen to yourselves complain but not do anything about it” had the audience in stiches. I detected a strong note of fear underneath the laughter – people were really worried about the Scottish people choosing to break away. And at the end of these three plays, I wound up feeling both that Scotland really does have a substantially different character than England does – but that these plays didn’t make the argument that Scotland needed to go it alone. This may or may not be true – only time will tell – but there are several more Jameses to go, and somewhere between then and now I think there’s still a play waiting to be written about the brilliant nation that is Scotland. It’s just not this play, and not really the set. But, like the election, it was a good try, and it certainly was entertaining enough along the way.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, October 1, 2014. It continues through most of October.)