by Lynn on June 27, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Hearn Generating Station, 440 Unwin St. Toronto, Ont.

Written by Rona Munro
Directed by Laurie Sansom
Musical director, Alasdair Macrae
Set and Costumes by Jon Bausor
Lighting by Philip Gladwell
Sound (James I and II) by Christopher Schutt
Sound (James III) by Nick Sagar
Composer (James I and II), Paul Leonard-Morgan
Composer (James III), Will Gregory
Cast: Rosemary Boyle
Daniel Cahill
All Craig
Malin Crépin
Blythe Duff
Nicholas Elliott
Peter Forbes
Andrew Fraser
Dani Heron
Brian James O’Sullivan
Sian Mannifield
David Mara
Steven Miller
Calum Morrison
Matthew Pidgeon
Sally Reid
Andrew Rothney
John Stahl
Andrew Still
Fiona Wood

NOTE: Because of scheduling I could only see all the plays on the last weekend.

A mammoth undertaking by the National Theatre of Scotland focusing on the reigns of three kings of Scotland from 1406 to 1488 that illustrates how these ancient kings have a modern application.

The Stories: James 1: The Key Will Keep the Lock. James I has been held in an English prison since he was 13. After 18 years in prison he is returned to Scotland to rule. He has tremendous opposition from the warring families who have been ruling in his place. He is forward thinking, a poet, a law-maker and comes to the role of king like a natural. He marries an Englishwoman and is determined to bring the rule of law for everyone to Scotland. This is the most satisfying of the three plays.

James II: Day of The Innocents
James II had a terrible childhood. He was abandoned by his mother and separated from his sisters, he was controlled by the warring families in Scotland. He found solace in a trunk where he could hid from his nightmares. His only friend is William Douglas. William is also a lonely boy whose only aim is to please his unkind, unloving father, the Earl of Douglas.

Savagery surrounds them and the boys bond seemingly for life. James becomes a watchful, thoughtful man and William becomes a bloodthirsty warrior. Because James II is a sensitive soul his grip on his crown, when trying to rule is a challenge. The fighting surrounding him is bloody. He marries and becomes a father. William is a trusted member of his court, but he too proves to be a liability. This play focuses on the relationship of James and William. It does illuminate the politics of Scotland but I found the relationship of the two men more of the focus.

James III: The True Mirror

James III of Scotland is a showman and charismatic. He loves finery, art, beauty and music. His ideas are big and expensive and his doesn’t care how it’s paid for as long as he gets his way. While he professes to be loyal to his wife his eye roves towards women and men equally.

His wife, Queen Margaret of Denmark, has more sense about how to rule and be fiscally responsible. She does rule for a few years and it’s relatively peaceful. But the country and its restless volatile ruling families are itching for a fight. Civil war is not far off.

This section is the most unsatisfactory for me, needing cutting and focusing. Ok we get it, James III is a fashion plate and irresponsible. We don’t need two hours and forty minutes or so to keep telling us.

The Productions
: Director, Laurie Sansom’s vision is spare and clear. A giant sword hangs down from the flies and the tip touches the stage. Mighty impressive. It says everything about the plays and Scotland. War and violence rule or is in the background. Jon Bausor’s design is also pared down. It serves the stories.

The acting for the most part is stellar. Steven Miller is a thoughtful, wise, compelling James I. Rosemary Doyle is a very strong Joan in James I. Blyth Duff is the frighteningly powerful, vengeful mother, Isabella Stewart in James I and II, Andrew Rothney as James II is fretful, timid, frightful and eminently watchable. As William, Andrew Still gets more and more focused and crazed in his ruthless quest for more. And one senses that he’s in love with James. Matthew Pidgeon is peacock proud as James III and one can see how both men and women would fancy him.

The only weakness is Malin Crépin as Margaret, Queen of Denmark. While she certainly is statuesque and queenly, I found her delivery plodding and labored.

Still for the most part, this is a strong company and very able to convey the hugeness of the stories.

Comment. Playwright Rona Munro wrote the James plays to coincide with the Scottish Referendum in which the people of Scotland voted to either stay in the United Kingdom or to separate and go it alone. The speech of James I railing that Scotland was sick of living under the thumb of an outside power, or the many and various speeches in each play in which King James I, II and/or III are urged to be independent and to go forward into the unknown, makes it very clear were Munro’s sentiments lay. That these plays have just finished an international tour (concluding in Toronto for Luminato) so soon after he Brexit vote once again illustrates how theatre holds a mirror up to reality.

Each play illustrates the nuts and bolts of kingship; diplomacy; how violence rules in many cases; how means of ruling vary from king to king; how history repeats itself; how human nature, jealousy, terror, loneliness, infidelity and love haven’t changed much over the last 600 years, whether you’re a king or not.

Rona Munro’s accomplishment in completing such a mammoth undertaking is mighty impressive. James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock beautifully and carefully illustrates the rise and history of James I; the overwhelming opposition he had from the various ruling families; and having to deal with a poor country with empty coffers. He was a forward thinking king who learned from his years of captivity. Trying to pass that knowledge and thinking on to his subjects was dramatic in itself.

But one can’t help thinking that James II: Day of the Innocents and James III: The True Mirror (in particular) could have benefitted from some judicious cutting. The is a lot of repetition and elongating in both these two parts.

Still glad I saw them all though. And for these huge plays the hulking, forbidding Hearn Generating Station proved to be an appropriate site.

Presented by the National Theatre of Scotland.

Opened: June 16, 2016
Closed: June 26, 2016.

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