Friday, 22 August 2014

EIF 2014 – The James Plays, or Of Theatre and Politics

I've hesitated a great deal about whether to publish my thoughts about this trilogy of plays because I haven't found it possible to review them without reference to my personal feelings about the independence referendum. I have felt at times in the last few months that being an Englishman who now lives down south again I'm not supposed to have feelings about that referendum, but I do, and I found it impossible to keep those feelings from affecting my reaction to parts of these plays, though I also think that these plays commit other theatrical sins which would have annoyed me regardless of the opionions they ultimately seemed to me to be trying to advance.

These plays aim to "bring[s] to life" the historical eras of James I, II and III of Scotland. The programme note and publicity are coy about the extent to which it is intended that this examination should have a resonance with respect to the current debate but by the end of the evening it seemed to me that all pretence was abandoned. During the first two plays it is also difficult to avoid comparison with Shakespeare's history plays, though an interview with Rona Munro in the programme pleads that we should. Perhaps it would be more possible to do this if the settings were not so RSC reminiscent, or if the pre-performance publicity did not make the comparison so unavoidable. In the first two plays that comparison is often unfavorable for reasons we'll come back to, the third play focuses almost exclusively on the women of the royal household, is thus the most successful in escaping the Shakespearean shadow, but suffers from other shortcomings.

My issues with these plays are really to do with the script, with what seems to me to be Munro's political agenda, and with the question of what version of history she is purporting to give. Before turning to those vexed matters, therefore, a few words should be said about the generally excellent ensemble and the design/direction. In contrast to the last NTS production I saw, The Bacchae, the general standard of acting and delivery is very high. Sofie Grabol as Margaret in James III has arguably the best written part in the whole trilogy and delivers a superb performance – her clarity of delivery could usefully be observed by one or two in the company whose projection still needs a little work. James Sives as Henry V and later James III, Andrew Rothney as James II both turn in strong performances. James McArdle does his best as James I but is least helped by the material. Of the other royal women I thought Blythe Duff's overbearing Isabella needed more subtlety but found her compelling as Annabella in the final play. Stephanie Hyam's dual roles as wives to the first two Jameses are nicely done and there is fine supporting work from Sarah Higgins as Meg (again with sometimes less than helpful material), and Rona Morrison (in parts two and three). Of the Scotch Lords, despite issues in the writing we'll come on to, Peter Forbes transforms convincingly from coward to grasper, Gordon Kennedy is convincingly different as the dominant Murdac in Part 1 and John in Part 3, and Mark Rowley is moving as Forbes's bullied son. The amphitheatre nature of the staging (with audience behind) is generally effective. I was a bit less sure about the enormous sword which is embedded a bit too obviously in the arena throughout proceedings. Sets are otherwise generally simple and Laurie Sansom keeps the pace moving along nicely – while there are some longeurs doing the trilogy in the day did not feel like a huge endurance test. The use of puppetry in James II which others have criticised I thought worked well though it does go on to long and the repeat of the opening scene didn't add anything. My other small criticisms on this side of things would be that some of the interpolated songs slow the pace with insufficient emotional benefit, and that the fighting is a little too nicely choreographed where it could do to give more of a sense of violence. Overall though, from a staging and acting point of view it's a strong set of performances. Unfortunately the text which underpins all this is another matter.

There are weaknesses to Munro's writing and approach that span all three plays. The first is that there is basically not a single interior monologue in the whole play – at several points characters are alone on stage and you think at last they're going to speak their private mind and each time Munro veers away from it. How one longs for someone, anyone, to really take us inside their thoughts and motives as happens so often in Shakespeare. But no, we get what they choose to tell other people – which is rarely deeply illuminating. This reluctance to get inside heads is compounded by the structure. There are frequent significant jumps in time (the abrupt switch from Margaret and James III being a loving couple to the complete breakdown of their relationship is a good example) where there just isn't enough examination of motives to make the thing dramatically satisfying. Added to these problems in James I is the rather clunky way Munro tries to throw in discussions about the problems of national cohesion and rulership – the debates here feel forced and left me unengaged. Things improve in James II and III because character is allowed to come more to the fore – the relationship of the four youngsters in James II in particular is effectively done. Even here though relations are introduced but then left unexplored like the suggestion of a spark between Annabella and Young Douglas. With both these issues the Shakespearean shadow lingers – his histories make the debates about cohesion and rulership flow much more naturally from his characters, and in the death scene between young Douglas and his father I couldn't avoid thinking of that between Prince Hal and Henry IV.

My other reservation about James I particularly is what felt to me to be rather a simplistic and cliched portrayal of some of the Scottish characters – you might be forgiven for imagining Scots spend all their time talking about the weather, getting drunk or speaking in this particular dialect. To take a parallel example, it felt a little as if one were to take the cast of EastEnders and say they represent England. Finally, on the detail of the script, there's the question of swearing – or in this case, how many times can the word “fuck” be shouted on stage. Swearing can enrich a play (see Black Watch or Port) but I'm afraid it far more often strikes me as indicating laziness of writing. Rona Munro ought to have heeded Alan Bennett's telling observation in Forty Years On: “Don't swear boy, it shows a lack of vocabulary.”

Then there's the question of Munro's version of history. The titles purport to be telling the tale of these three kings of Scotland. In practice, and especially in James III, Munro appears more interested in the lives of their wives (and any other women she can find to introduce into the mix). With James III I found it increasingly difficult to take this seriously as history - he is reduced to almost comic madman status (without proper explanation of the roots of this) and Margaret put in charge of the country and dominating a lot of male nobles who, as across the three plays, Munro has shown no interest in really telling us about. As I understand it Margaret never ruled in this way, and the programme note's essay on James III presents a rather different figure to Munro's invention. Now of course Shakespeare took all kinds of liberties with his histories too, but James III in particular is reduced to such a cipher here, and there is so little attempt to investigate the attitude to kingship as sacred (and indeed other parts of the plays suggest that no one in Scotland particularly regards whoever happens to be on the throne at that moment in that kind of light) that one becomes increasingly puzzled as to why no one actually takes steps to depose him long before Act Two. Having Margaret play this invented part at the end of the play made me even more resistant to the way she's made authorial mouthpiece at that point than I would have been anyway. It's not that I'm against making the women central, and this could be seen as redressing a balance where too often they are ignored, but it seemed to me that Munro could not decide whose story she wanted to tell or whether she was engaged in history or fiction. The line between the latter can be effectively blurred, but here I felt Munro was pretending to do one thing while actually doing the other in a way which irritated me.

And finally there are Munro's political views. Munro claims in the programme note to have expressed her opinion on the referendum through these plays in a “nuanced and complicated way”.
This claim is just about sustainable until the penultimate scene of James III. There are some unpleasant moments early on – simplistic remarks about the nature of the relationship with the English which seemed to me to chime with some of the more anti-English sentiments expressed by parts of the yes campaign (I've sometimes felt lately as if no one on the yes side believes anymore that there is anyone in England who loves Scotland). But the real problem was Margaret's speech at the end of James III which enraged me. I detest being lectured by plays where the character doing the lecturing goes unchallenged by anyone else on stage and there is thus no right of reply (David Hare's infuriating Skylight is a recent example), and I emphatically felt Margaret's speech to be a lecture telling me what I should think about independence. I didn't agree with it and I found it simplistic - one thing I absolutely do not think the question of independence is. But it also raised again the question of what kind of play Munro intended. I felt that, with the decision to elevate Margaret to utter dominance over the cipher-like men around her, Munro had stepped fairly completely outside of history. It might just as well at that point have been Munro herself telling a collection of current Scottish great and good what they ought to do in the referendum. I was certainly not convinced on this basis that Scotland at the end of James III's reign was engaged in a discussion with direct parallels to the present. And all of that is without discussing the tiresomely drawn out attempt to find an ending which follows Margaret's speech and the gratuitous and unnecessary nudity.

The plays are performed by a fine ensemble effectively directed. Incoming director Fergus Linehan has promised more such co-productions which seems a very positive line of development for International Festival theatre. There are strong moments in all three plays but what I was left with was not those moments but the unhappiness indeed anger engendered by Munro's determined political statement through Margaret. As an Englishman who lived up here for eleven years, who loves Scotland, hopes she is going to stay and has therefore attended closely to the referendum campaign I've had to listen to some of the sentiments in that statement too much in the last few months. Social media, news reports and so on I can step away from, here I was trapped in my seat. I left the theatre very angry. The ultimate message of these plays will doubtless speak to the already committed (a handful gave the final play a standing ovation). Truly great plays on this vexed question of independence would have reflected the ambiguities better.

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