PG Wodehouse, who was only the twentieth century’s greatest English-language novelist, once remarked that there existed just two ways to write: “One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn.”
I feel something similar about theatre. I can – and do – enjoy a comedy or farce and, blimey, there’s always room for laughter in this – or any other – world. But, in general, I prefer my theatre punishing and draining and liable to leave you exhausted and feeling like the marrow’s been sucked from your bones. I don’t go to the theatre to be entertained. I want to be appalled – and, yes, occasionally cheered – by humanity in all its many forms.
Rona Munro’s trilogy of history plays about the lives of King James I, II and III of Scotland is the centrepiece of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. Upon their success, in some ways, hangs the success – or failure – of the Festival as a whole. It is an ambitious but heartening undertaking. Just the sort of thing the Festival should be doing.
The elephant in the room, of course, is Shakespeare. It is unfair to compare Munro’s work to Shakespeare’s history plays but the comparisons remain inescapable. Of course she falls short. But of course she is trying to do something different. She is not seeking to emulate Shakespeare.
And yet the overlap is unavoidable. We first meet James I through the eyes of a mocking fucking-this-and-fucking-that Henry V. James is 28 now but has been held prisoner in England since he was 10. There has been some jiggery-pokery with the actual historical chronology (this is entirely excusable) and it is Henry V (not, as in real history, Henry VI) who sends his notional vassal back to Scotland to claim a crown he has previously owned in name only. In return James is supposed to raise a ransom to be paid to Henry and, more importantly, ensure Scottish soldiers no longer fight for France against England. In case you weren’t sure about these things, the message is driven home by a wrestling match between the two kings which is won – easily – by Henry.
So far so fine. How will James be received in Scotland after so many years in exiled captivity? How can he vanquish the mighty nobles – kinsmen of his – who have ruled as regents in his absence? How can he make make the kingdom his and secure his right to rule?
These are not, alas, questions addressed in any great depth or subtlety. There is, understandably, the problem of language. It would be futile to write cod-Shakespeare but an audience can be forgiven for desiring some lyricism from their playwright. Instead we are treated to modern English in a Scots accent. There is a lot of telling and little showing.
At one point you hear James say “I know I can be a really good king” and you begin to think this is a play that has put too high a price on accessibility at the expense of poetry or nuance or complexity. Never mind Shakespeare, this isn’t even Robert Bolt. One joke about the Scottish climate might be acceptable; a second is ill-advised and is really whoring for cheap laughs. Ditto for chuckles about the food – stones, mud – eaten in Scotland.
Grimly, there are moments when you think the writing better suited to BBC Scotland’s little-watched soap opera River City than a co-production between the Festival, the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre (UK).
James himself speaks with a Scots accent which, frankly, is odd for a man who returns to Scotland after so many years away. Worse, this directorial decision deprives the production of an additional layer of nuance. If James spoke as an Englishman his line addressed to his nobles “Do you think I’m an Englishman?” might have some power. But because he speaks in a Scots accent the moment – and opportunity – is lost. We are never encouraged to think of Scotland as a varied or complicated place in which there might be different kinds of Scot. (If you wish to see where this might have led you could do worse than consult James Kennaway’s Tunes of Glory in which the conflict between the Colonel Barrow – an anglo-Scot – and Glasgow boy Jock Sinclair is based, at least in part, on these differences.)
Perhaps that missed opportunity was predictable. So, alas, is Munro’s determination to cut any moment of tension with a joke. This, in my view, is a familiar failing. If in doubt seek an easy pantomime-style laugh. Alistair Beaton’s disastrous Caledonia (about the equally, if more significantly, disastrous Darien Scheme) suffered from music-hall-itis too and so, I understand, did Tim Barlow’s recent play Union.
It’s as though Scottish playwrights neither trust their material nor their audience when writing about historical events. A kind of playwright cringe, frankly, that is – at least in my opinion – depressing. Never mind the horror, let’s cut to the gags.
But Scottish history was horrid. This is an age in which brother slew brother, in which former favourites were executed and in which no king ever had a sure hold on power or life itself. James I was killed by rebellious nobles. James II died besieging Roxburgh Castle in the Borders. James III was killed by rebels too and James IV would die in battle at Flodden Field. Glory tempted but reality disagreed.
One Scottish playwright who had seen a preview of one of the James plays sniffed to me that it was all “a bit Game of Thrones” but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The problem with James I is that Game of Thrones is better written.
Professional theatre critics have been all-but-unanimous in declaring James II the weakest of the trilogy. I think they are wrong. That is, I disagree with them. I think it the best of the Munro’s three plays and the only one in which the fragility of life is given real blood, real guts, real bones.
This is a hideous world in which the young King – who assumed the throne aged just six – is haunted by the faint memories of his father’s murder. He is a prisoner of faction. He who holds the King holds the land. James is a puppet monarch. A fake-king until he comes of age and even then his authority is by no means certain.
Much of the first act is told in flashback and with actual puppets deputising for the young King James II. His older self is on stage and speaks the lines but the use of a puppet for his younger self, though initially appearing contrived, soon helps reinforce the nightmarish predicament in which James – at any age of his rule – finds himself. If his father was a prisoner in England, this James is a prisoner in Scotland. There is terror aplenty and every reason for him to grow-up afraid.
James II is a more personal, claustrophobic, play than James I and all the better for it. Munro’s canvas is smaller and better-painted. James II is surrounded by ambitious subjects who have used the opportunities afforded by his minority to enrich themselves.
No-one has done this more effectively than the Douglas family. William, heir to the Earldom (then Scotland’s greatest), was once young James’s bosom chum. Their relationship is the heart of the second act as a newly-confident King seeks to clip the wings of an over-mighty subject.
There are, obviously, echoes of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays here. If there is nothing quite so brutal as I know thee not, old man this confrontation still shows Munro’s writing at its best: unvarnished, spare, and brutal. The salad days of friendship have passed and a King must assert his prerogative, even if that means murdering his once-best-friend just as King Henry, in Shakespeare, effectively murdered Prince Hal.
You knew where Munro was going with all this but it was a good place and the journey was worthwhile. There was a real sense of the impermanence of kingship and the temporary, provisional, nature of alliance. Kings have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. But even Kings suffer from the melancholy consequences of the actions their status forces upon them. Even a monarch’s life was nasty, brutal and short in a land and age that stank of betrayal and murder.
So things were coming to a boil as we entered the third play of the trilogy. Hopes were high. I am not sure they were maintained. James III struck me as a play that could not decide what it wished to be. Was it a courtly comedy of manners? A revenge play? Or even just a satire?
Not quite any of these, in my view. James III was a foppish, self-indulgent monarch but, for the first time in Laurie Sansom’s otherwise estimable direction I began to wonder what the point of it all was.
For instance, after two plays in which costumes were, in general, the now standard indeterminate medieval/early modern dress we were now presented with a cast in more-or-less modern dress. Indeed, the atmosphere at the start of James III was like a Highland shooting party at New Year. I suppose that this solved the problem of actors speaking 21st century words while notionally representing 15th century Scots but it still jarred. Was this supposed to be a satire on the landed classes? Perhaps.
James III was only eight when his father died in 1460 but we only encounter him later once he has been wed to – and then estranged from – his wife Margaret of Denmark (played with great authority by Sofie Grabol, most familiar from The Killing). He is vain and lackadaisical and utterly convinced of the divine right of Kings. Oddly, he speaks with a Morningside accent (though his pansexual proclivities might shock the matrons of that Edinburgh neighbourhood).
Margaret, however, is the main character in this play. Her on-off relationship with James and her determination to safeguard her son’s inheritance is the play’s dominant theme. Grabol’s performance – like the great majority of performances in this extravaganza – is splendid. She is the moral centre of the play as she tries to hold a kingdom together despite the unfortunate reality of it being notionally ruled by an over-ambitious but feckless King.
Nevertheless, I found it hard to avoid the thought that it was unfortunate there had to be a James III play. Or this James III play anyway. His son James IV – who, ahistorically slays his father – was more interesting. Perhaps that could be fodder – I hope it will be – for the Festival to commission three more plays featuring the stories of James IV, V and VI. It would complete the cycle.
James III, I thought, could not decide whether it was a comedy or a domestic play or a grand tragedy and, in the end, settled for being neither one thing nor anything else. Perhaps that is the nature of the material but after the harrowing grandness of James II I thought it a disappointment.
The staging, it should be said, is almost entirely excellent. The stage is sensibly bare save for an enormous dagger that reminds you – if you need reminding – that lives and Kings are cheap. Some audience members are seated in banks of seating above and at the back of the stage – an arrangement that helps reinforce there was no hiding place for Kings. It could be a suffocating business, right enough, and you were never safe and only rarely alone. Eyes were upon you and if you ever turned your back you were in peril.
Munro’s plays have been scoured for political meaning and this, thanks to the independence referendum, is as unavoidable as it is pointless. These are nationalist plays. How could they be otherwise? To inject a Unionist perspective would be anachronistic. These are plays about the matter of Scotland. The problem is less the politics than the lack of subtlety.
James III, for instance, complains:
“Let England invade! I’ll be delighted to surrender, Save a lot of time and money and all that wasted effort bouncing around waving our fists and kidding on we’re not just a wee boy without a catapult facing up to a bear.
Let England eat us and get it over with! What’s the point! What’s the point? Today, tomorrow, a hundred years from now? They’ll do it one day, won’t they? They’re bigger than us! They’ve got more money! Face the reality, dearest! They’re having us! Let’s get it over with and get on with something that makes sense of our imminent plummet into an open grave!”
Self-pity is rarely attractive and James III is full of it. Munro is clear that James III was a poor monarch, in many ways unfit for the crown he wore. Alas, she never explores James’s desire to make peace with England (chiefly via a marriage alliance) and nor does she explore the ambiguity of the 1482 rebellion in which Alexander, James’s younger brother, rose against the King with English support. (That rebellion failed; six years later the rebel nobles succeeded in overthrowing James.)
Perhaps it is unfair to judge a play on what it could have contained but chose not to. Nevertheless the sense persists that one of the problems with the James Plays is that they are too short. That might seem odd, given that staging them occupies an entire day. Nevertheless, the richness of the material is such that squeezing each drama – especially James I and III – into a mere two and half hours inevitably means much must be cut or at best compressed. In this sense the problem is that the plays are not quite ambitious enough.
The moral is, perhaps unsurprisingly, delivered by Margaret. (What’s the point of hiring Grabol if you don’t give her something to do?) In a long and painfully didactic conclusion she tells the assembled Scots – on stage and in the audience alike – what they yearn to hear:
You know the problem with you lot? You’ve got fuck-all except attitude. You scram and shout about how you want things done and how things ought to be done and when the chance comes look at you! What are you frightened of? Making things worse? According to you things couldn’t get worse for Scotland!
You wear me out, do you know that? You drive me mad.
Would one of you please please explain to me why it is I still love you so much? Would someone please tell me why a rational woman, born in a reasonable country [Denmark], would rather live here and be your Queen than exist in quiet happy peace anywhere else on earth?
I am the Queen of Scots. And no, I don’t always like that. But I do love it. Always.
As I say, if in doubt flatter your audience.
Still, for all their abundant flaws these plays, collectively, still work. The cast – especially Blythe Duff, Stephanie Hyam, Sarah Higgins, Mark Rowley and Andrew Rothney – make the most of the material and while the plays can’t quite answer the Scottish Affair they are a gallant attempt at doing so and, at the very least, ask some of the proper questions. And in the end, you know, failing matters less than trying in the first place.
The plays transfer to the National Theatre in London next month and, if you can, you should see them.
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