6 Mar 2016

Review: James I

From the collecton Arts Festivals 2016
The James Plays

The James Plays Photo: David Eustace

This muscular, intelligent production asserts the power of contemporary theatre to reflect when and where it was made. However, in bringing history to life so vividly, it’s also revealed a major, in fact a great, work of modern drama.

Written only a few years ago at a time when Scotland was considering independence from England, it reclaims Scottish history from its most famous chronicler.

Arguing that Shakespeare is not the best or most reliable historian, it audaciously serves up an alternative Henry V in its opening scene. Revealed here as a bully, about to have some Scottish soldiers executed, this Henry is very different from his Shakespearean counterpart. But, although memorably sketched in, he’s only a minor role in a plot which swiftly moves us north to Scotland, where the real business begins.

Rona Munro’s script is a splendid thing, deftly introducing the young James, explaining his back story of his imprisonment in England for 18 years, and propelling him on to Scotland (accompanied by an English bride) to unify the tribal, warring factions ruling the country. He must learn what kingship means. What it is to grasp power.

With its echoes of Game of Thrones (minus the gore and gratuitous nudity), and its pared-back dialogue, the play interweaves the private and public lives of its central characters with admirable economy and swiftness.

The strangeness of the arranged marriage between James and his young bride, the English noblewoman Joan, is explored through dialogue which brings them both vividly to life. These are real people, this is how they would speak if they were in that situation today.

What’s also noticeable is the strength of the female roles – both Joan (Rosemary Boyle), her servant, and a magnificent performance by Blythe Duff as a Scottish noblewoman who resents the loss of power which accepting James as king entails. It’s not only the English, but the male version of history, which is being challenged by this trilogy of plays.

There are pitch-perfect performances everywhere. The large ensemble cast is headed by Steven Miller in terrific form as James. His climactic speech to his still- rebellious and suspicious clan leaders is one of many highlights, deftly undercut by the act of violence which ultimately secures his position on the throne.

Elegantly located in a Globe Theatre – style arrangement which has some of the audience overlooking the action from seats on the stage, the production has tremendous confidence and assurance.

That said, some voices were underpowered for first act and lost in the cavernous acoustic of the ASB Theatre, but this came right after the interval. If this was assisted by the sound system, it was done very discreetly, as a boost in volume was otherwise noticeable only in the songs which punctuate the action.

As with Black Watch, the National Theatre of Scotland's last show to tour to NZ, this will be a deserved sellout. Despite the swagger of the production, at its core, it’s a conventional play rather than a hybrid multi-media performance. Arts festivals in New Zealand rarely feature such works these days, especially on the epic scale of this one.

As the first instalment of 7 ½ hours in the theatre – James II and James III play today – this is talky, real theatre. It demands attention, but it repays it many times over.

The play concludes, with Shakespearean/GOT zest, on the threat of vengeance to come. I can’t wait to find out what happens in the rest of the trilogy I’ll be seeing today.

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