Review: James III – The True Mirror (plus overview of the trilogy), National Theatre

“Scotland herself doesn’t know what kind of nation she is half the time but I’ve learned that there’s no sense being frightened of what you don’t know”

If the world of James III – The True Mirror is what Scottish independence might have actually looked like, then I reckon the Yeses might have had it. Pithy remark aside, the costume work is spectacular here, conjuring up a modern classic look for the Scots that is to die for and which also serves as a visual cue into this production, the final of Rona Munro’s James Plays which abandons its medieval setting for this notional updating. Seeing it as the final part of the marathon trilogy day, it was a brilliant shift in tone and the pre-show entertainment (simply not to be missed) just adds to the sparkling invention as pop songs get the ceilidh treatment from Alasdair MacRae.

Though the play may be entitled James III, the reality is that this slice of the Stewart monarchy was indubitably shared with his wife Margaret of Denmark. The third king of his name was a capricious fellow indeed, the self-confessed “sparkle before the dark”, a rebellious dandy concerned far more with the trappings of monarchy than the minutiae of ruling, most amusingly evidenced by his procurement of a choir to accompany him at all times. By contrast, his pragmatic wife (“from a rational nation with reasonable people” lest you forget!) looks after the treasury, pets the furrowed brow of the privy council and generally rules the roost. Of course she does, she’s Sarah Lund! Continue reading “Review: James III – The True Mirror (plus overview of the trilogy), National Theatre”

Review: James II – Day of The Innocents, National Theatre

“You’re a great-great-great-grandson of the Bruce. Like me. You could be King.”

On first sight, it may seem that James II – Day of The Innocents is the weakest of The James Plays. On a personal note, it is blighted with blasted puppets which is rarely a good thing for me and more generally, the structure of the first half is more challenging than anything else across the trilogy. But on reflection and on reading the play, it isn’t that difficult to follow and across the broader sweep of the three dramas, there’s something admirable in the determination of writer Rona Munro and director Laurie Sansom to stamp a different identity on each one and ensure that whilst seeing them all would be great, it is far from necessary.

As with his father, assassinated by some disgruntled noblemen, the young James II finds himself a prisoner for much of his early life, this time held captive by Scotsmen though, who use the young monarch to legitimise their dominance of the privy council. Through a series of fever dreams, flashbacks are played out with nightmarish intensity by the puppets whilst concurrently we see their effects on a haunted young man. Much of the success of these scenes lies with the listeners – Blythe Duff’s imprisoned Isabella and Sarah Higgins’ compassionate Meg – who anchor the fantasia of this first half and gently hint at the forthcoming trials that James must face. Continue reading “Review: James II – Day of The Innocents, National Theatre”

Review: James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock, National Theatre

“I am the King of Scots. In 18 years I never forgot that”

The first of The James Plays – a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland, the Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre (of Great Britain) – James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock sets the tone for this Scottish history trilogy brilliantly. Rona Munro guides us in with the recognisable figure of Henry V of England but then unleashing upon us the little-known and little-explored early Stewart kings and the maelstrom of conflict that was the Scottish court.

The reason we meet Henry V (a wonderfully belligerent Jamie Sives) is that for 18 years he kept James Stewart a prisoner, humiliating him at every opportunity, and it is only after Henry’s death that James was able to negotiate a release to return to his own kingdom, albeit one that barely recognised or wanted him. From these inauspicious beginnings, we then see how he sets about ruling with an iron fist, finding that the only way to dominate the murderous noblemen is join right in the skulduggery. Continue reading “Review: James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock, National Theatre”

Review: Iron, Old Red Lion Theatre

“It’s a painful thing, remembering…”

…and at times, it is a near-painful thing to watch Bold Over’s production of Rona Munro’s 2003 play Iron. The way in which director Matt Beresford tightens the screws of this psychological drama and Shuna Snow’s extraordinary performance as Fay sucks the air out of the room is just excruciatingly good – there were entire scenes where I forgot to breathe. That the writing doesn’t quite sustain this level of intensity over its 2 hours 20 minutes running time is probably best for the oxygen levels of its audience, but this emerges as an excellent piece of fringe theatre. 

Fay is a lifer in a Scottish prison, jailed for murder 15 years ago and in that time has never received a visitor or spoken much of her life before. So it is a surprise to all concerned when a young woman named Josie turns up without a visiting order, revealing herself to be Fay’s daughter. A tumultuous episode in her life has left her questioning the gaps in her memory – she remembers nothing before her 11th birthday, nothing about her father – and so she has finally turned to her mother to try and piece together the mysteries of the past, unaware of just how painful a journey it will be for both of them.  Continue reading “Review: Iron, Old Red Lion Theatre”

Review: Little Eagles, RSC at Hampstead

“All these dreams of fire and steel in one little head”

The best of intentions always tend to go awry from time to time and so it is with theatre bookings. I would not normally have considered going to see Little Eagles, as Russian space history is not generally a subject I care that much about, at least not enough to pay money to see. But, as it was one of the new commissions by the RSC and being performed by the Ensemble, whom have grown into a fabulously cohesive unit and therefore pretty much making anything they do a must-see as they come into the final furlong of their time together.

Marking the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned orbit of the earth, Rona Munro’s play follows the development of the Soviet space programme by Sergei Korolyov, a former gulag inmate with the meagrest of resources who managed the incredible even in the face of great political pressure. But it is a slow, long play with little variation of tone or voice; there’s no attempt to question this version of events and even the joy of seeing these actors in fascinatingly different roles did not really mitigate against this. Continue reading “Review: Little Eagles, RSC at Hampstead”