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The James Plays | Auckland Arts Festival 2016

The James plays are the jewels in the crown in the Auckland Arts Festival: brilliant production value, top-notch drama and impeccable acting. It’s a chance to experience the best of what an international festival can offer right here in Auckland and whether you’re a history major or care about the Scots one whit matters little; it’s an excellent example of international theatrical standards.

The work of the National Theatre of Scotland first came to my attention when I was a student at UCLA in 2007. They toured Black Watch to the USA and I was mesmerised at how they brought such gritty finesse to their work.

Written by Rona Munro and directed by Laurie Sansom, The James Plays are no exception and only prove that as the company celebrates their 10th birthday in 2016 this National Theatre will only continue to grow in bringing stories of the Scots to the world.

The three plays follow a narrative arc across multiple generations. The first begins by tracing the return of James I to Scotland after eighteen years of captivity in an English prison. A new chapter in Scottish history begins amidst warring lords and chaos amongst the three estates. James I and his English Queen Joan find themselves caught time and again in murderous plots from none other than close kin and family.

As the opening chapter in the trilogy, James I is the most powerful of the three. It has the agency and the urgency of a contemporary historical drama and Munro’s writing is razor sharp. Cutting through any antiquated linguistic lethargy, she creates a world that is taut with political tension, tremulous love and – despite the frailties of its characters – much humour and comedy.

Bear in mind that liberties have been taken with historical accuracy (and this is included in the programme notes as well) but for a historical drama it serves not the textbooks but the people, not the records but the stories that we can believe of men and women who lived in a time not that dissimilar, perhaps, from ours.

Steven Miller is James I and combines both the desperation of a young man seeking to reclaim his throne with an inevitable coldness that must clench his heart when it comes to turning against those who had once indicated loyalty. His queen Joan (Rosemary Boyle) is young and a tad frustrating as his shrill companion but the limits of her female character play out against her husband’s continually growing comprehension of the world – one where he is increasingly dulled to compassion or indeed, justice.

Meg (Sally Reid), a stalwart lady of the Scottish court, is a present to the new queen and easily becomes a quick favourite, not only to her mistress but to the audience who watch the world change through not only the eyes of the king and court but through those pressed into their service. These are the subjects of the king who must bring babes into the world, pick up stray chicken bones off the floor and take care of those who are careless of power.

Murdac Stewart (John Stahl) and his wife Lady Isabella (Blythe Duff) are the king’s nemeses, pitted as the arch enemies of the James’ family (even though are indeed all related as descendants of Robert the Bruce). They are consistently two of the most compelling performers, both in this play and other plays as well. However, despite Murdac and Isabella’s best efforts to protect their rascally sons Alasdair (Daniel Cahill) Big James (Ali Craig) and Walter (Andrew Rothney), their inevitable destiny sets off a chain-reaction that envelops the house of Stewart in tragedy.

This continues into James II as we watch the heir to the throne (Daniel Cahill), abandoned by his mother, grow up in the Scottish court as a wee nine-year-old who authorises murder all done, ‘in the king’s name’ and unwittingly gives away his sister Annabella (Dani Heron) in marriage to a man who never comes for her. The world changes as we see a boy-king grow up under the thumb of cruel advisors with no friends except one William Douglas (Andrew Still) whose family are the new challengers to the king.

The second James play is haunted by the acts of the first; there are hallucinations that torture the young prince including his earliest memories that his father died not a hero but a ‘skewered rat’ and that his beloved mother was less than a loyal wife. Against this Lady Isabella (Blythe Duff) cackles, rotting in prison as she watches the souls of her sons soar as white birds against the high Scottish skies, her curses never far away from the sense of inevitability that the second king of Scotland and his young French bride, Queen Mary (Rosemary Boyle) must face.

Unlike the first James play, which is highly plot-driven and makes a huge effort to establish the world of the Scottish kings; the second focuses on relationships, between best friends but also the forces beyond human control. Sally Reid continues in her role as Meg and takes care of the young king and, like Lady Isabella, is a link between the two worlds. There are obvious nods to ‘the Scottish play’ with the prophesying witch, unnatural dark forces at work, illusion versus reality and male friendships that are devastated.

In this work (compared to the first and last James play), the first and second acts are perhaps the most awkward, shifting the story from youth to seasoned adult with not enough weight to support the character changes. Nevertheless it continues the legacy of the first.

The final James play brings us close to the immediacy of the present. The language has always been contemporary but in this world we see the boundaries of the past bleed into the present. The king, James III (Matthew Pidgeon) is a philandering spendthrift whose main asset is his Danish queen, Margaret of Denmark, Queen of Scotland (Mailin Crépin). The latter is (finally) a female character that combines beauty, brains and gravity, unlike her pretty but weak predecessors, and displays strength and fortitude when her husband proves himself to be glaringly inept.

Despite the romantic attempts of John, the head of the privy council (Ali Craig) the Queen remains resolute, choosing to stay at the ancestral seat, Stirling castle, with her eldest child Jamie (Daniel Cahill) while the King keeps his favourite son, Ross (Andrew Still) with him in Edinburgh – along with other favourites including the laundress Daisy (Fiona Wood) and his personal servant Ramsay (Andrew Fraser).

Blythe Duff returns in the final play as the king’s aunt Annabella and the role gives this extraordinary actress further opportunity to prove her virtuosity as one of the theatre’s most compelling performers. Bringing cynical humour, unwavering motherly devotion and tender but pragmatic sensibilities, Duff offers the full gamut of human emotion in epic proportions and is a brilliant asset on a largely male dominated stage.

Ultimately, in this final chapter James III proves that the ‘knives have been put into the hands’ of the kings and despite their good intentions fathers and sons must face each other. The climax therefore, is not in the predictable demise which we know too well but in the ongoing shadow upon the Stewart name that must, with little or no variation, lengthen as surely shadows do.

As a whole the success of the James plays comes down to the fact that it is (for the most part) a highly integrated production. The cinematic score by composers Paul Leonard-Morgan and Will Gregory is finely woven into Christopher Shutt and Nick Sagar’s soundscape design – equal parts bombastic and evocative, light and tender.

Under the direction of Laurie Sansom the drama unfolds at a thrilling pace in the first play and, as the worlds open up and audiences become more familiar with these narratives, the form segues into the intimacy of highly episodic domestic drama.

The set is appropriately sparse with a towering sword that remains a permanent fixture through all three productions, and various levels create height and depth for the multiple narratives to be enacted across this vast span of time. Jon Bausar’s set design works in perfect sync with Philip Gladwell’s lighting design to create a world where sunlight effortlessly streams in through castle windows, rose gardens bloom where hangings were held, and the battlefield is brought with its shimmering swords into the raucous household of the court.

One of the absolute highlights of this production was the strength of the ensemble. Often including the leads at different times, the James plays are a delight to watch for many reasons but the consistently high-performing supporting cast ensures that the production never rides solely on its leads and – at two-and-a-half hours (including interval) per play – this theatrical marathon is worth watching.

This form of theatre merges inherent drama with the best of film and television combining qualities of all three to create a powerful environment where ultimately story is served, as it rightfully should be, as the centrepiece of any theatrical banquet.