Rona Munro's James Plays reign at Edinburgh
Rona Munro's epic trilogy about Scottish kings James I, II and III marks the first collaboration between the National Theatres of Scotland and Great Britain. See what critics made of their premiere as part of this year's Edinburgh International Festival…
The idea of enslavement and liberty runs through the trilogy, from the moment we see James McArdle's impressively determined, poetry-loving James I… James II: Day of the Innocents, is a phantasmagorical recap… What starts out looking like a schools drama with bagpipes thickens into a rich stew of local political skulduggery… By the time this complicatedly technical show moves south to the National next month – see, they come running when they need us! – it should have found its true and focussed voice… This is a fine company of actors, all three kings outstanding, Sophie Gråbøl enchanting, and big ballsy performances from Blythe Duff as Queen Isabella and Sarah Higgins as Meg.
… the three plays about James I,II and III, are a resplendent feather in the joint caps of their co-producers… These are unequivocally plays for today… [Rona] Munro skilfully interweaves the personal and the political… Gråbøl is both sexy and funny… Laurie Sansom's production which constantly propels the action forwards and even camouflages the odd moment of stasis in the second play… Jon Bausor has also devised a striking design… fine work from Blythe Duff as a power-hungry Stewart, Peter Forbes as the land-grabbing senior Douglas and Mark Rowley as his devious son… Munro's trilogy is very much in touch with the living present.
These plays are entertainments, not history lessons… The second play focuses so narrowly on the relationship between James II and Douglas (Mark Rowley) that the action can slow, but the intimacy of their final confrontation is beautifully and painfully realised… Sofie Gråbøl is magnificent… these plays are more than a reaction to a referendum. They are an astonishing dramatic achievement… Sansom's direction is so fizzing with energy that you could power most of Edinburgh with it… three kings are completely distinct and powerfully performed; Blythe Duff is excellent… Stephanie Hyam gives stunning, contrasting performances… Munro's script is the star… a feast of theatrical might and blistering emotion.
Rona Munro‘s three plays can stand confidently alone but, taken together, have a scale and reach that is thrilling and satisfying in equal measures. Laurie Samson… directs with confidence and brio in the poky, ebullient style… The cast… never flags… Grabol is wonderful… Blythe Duff is a revelation… too much sub-Thick of It swearing in James I, a slightly overbaked court scene in James lll… The pleasures are manifold and the food for thought… chewy and utterly delicious.
James McArdle [James I] is magnificent… makes you feel the necessity of coming of age in a way that’s compelling and surprising. This stunning piece of theatre stands alone. James II… suffers from a confusing, fussily staged first half bogged down by too much information, puppetry that jars with the rest of the staging, and naff musical stings. It finds its heart later… but before that it plays like a sequel that used up its best ideas in its first instalment… This bittersweet play grows on you steadily… Sofie Gråbøl… is natural yet deceptively powerful… Jamie Sives is a paranoid, feckless James III… The first play is essential, the third is excellent, the second is optional.
The James Plays continue in rep at the Festival Theatre until 22 August, and transfer to the National Theatre from 10 September
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