Posts Tagged ‘The James Plays’

Review – James Play 3, The True Mirror – National Theater of Scotland at National Theater

October 6, 2014

“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.)

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

September 22, 2014

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.)

Review – The Key Will Keep The Lock – James Play #1 at National Theater

September 12, 2014

A month or so ago I was reading the news from the Edinburgh Fringe, and in the midst of all of the lack of coverage of the Scottish Independence vote from the stage (the specific article said that people just became uncomfortable unless it was dealt with as a joke), I saw a mention of the James plays that utterly pulled me in. New theater about Scottish kings? I knew nothing about them, really (always looking to bone up a bit on my history), but then to make it all more attractive I read that these plays were (supposedly) really engaging – even though there were three of them? And there was going to be a transfer to London? I went immediately to the National Theater website and found space in my calendar for all three of the plays (fortunately on the Travelex $15 series). Unsuprisingly the two days when all three plays were being done in rep were all sold out – a taste, I guessed, of the word of mouth effect on these shows. Tickets secured, I did my usual thing of going into a media blackout so I could enjoy the plays as fully as possible.

At last the day of the first show arrived – when I would discover if I’d just made an expensive error of judgment. I had a sweet seat in the center stalls (love those preview prices), but I felt envious when I saw there was a whole bank of seats on the opposite side of the stage – almost the first time I could remember seeing the Olivier being used as a theater in the round. How did those people get to those seats? Were these going to be the great views? (As it turns out, while they had the pleasure/frustration the actors working among them -especially in the scenes involving the throne, which was right in the middle of this set piece – the action was 80% facing the front otherwise and I would not consider these good seats unless they were really cheap, as spending scene after scene craning all the way to the left or right or just watching people’s backs would be very irritating).

And then the show started, sound and fury galore, a four story sword poking symbolically out of the stage (it was generally quite bare except for the occasional table or bed). We were introduced to Henry V (Jamie Sives) and his long term prisoner, James (James McArdle, whom he has kept mostly locked up for some eighteen years. Henry has captured four lesser Scottish nobles – thick accents all around – whom he wants James to make an example of. But James (thicker accent, not sure how he would have kept it being locked up from the age of ten) has other ideas, about the rules of chivalry, which he wants to apply now. Henry instead decides to show James that he still has control over him, and can beat his “rule of law” with the rule of force, because James need to learn what a king must do … and that for him, what he must do is obey.

Thus we nicely have set for us in the very first the themes of this play; of James as a dreamer, of James the king, of James as a man whose psychology might just be a little twisted by the circumstances of his life. But in parallel with this story is not just the extremely human story about his relationship with Joan (Stephanie Hyam), the queen forced on him by Henry, but of the building of the Scottish nation … a historical situation made vibrant and breathing by the current independence vote. The question of Scottish identity and the relationship and difference between Scotland and England is so alive that I could practically see them as other characters in the room, with the audience responding amazingly strongly to the debate on sovereignty happening in front of their eyes, disguised as history, making it clear that the era we are living in is one in which history is being built … on the roots of ancient actions. Wow. I could only imagine what the impact must have been of The Crucible during the McCarthy hearings. It seemed so appropriate, given this, that people spoke this new play in a modern style (complete with swear words), because the words, sentiments, and emotions were those of today. This was not a history play or a history: it was a play about now.

And I loved it. I didn’t read the program notes because I didn’t want to lose any surprises, and I was practically bouncing at intermission waiting for us to get back in and get on with it. I was on the edge of my seat when Queen Joan was being threatened and laughed when her servant Meg (Sarah Higgins) told the courtiers off for bad table manners. This is the kind of modern theater that I love, excellent, confident story telling delivered by note perfect actors with a focus on human interaction and resonance beyond the play itself. I now think the price I paid for the three shows was an incredible deal and I can’t wait for my return next week. Who needs Wolf Hall: the James plays have actually delivered us living, breathing history that makes people care. Thank you, Rona Munro; job well done.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Wednesday, September 10th, 2014. It runs through October 28th and is already almost booked solid. Get your tickets now!)