The hit of 2014’s Edinburgh Festival makes a welcome return. We are back in the feuding 15th century where everyone has to navigate the treacherous intrigues of court life. The story takes the audience with it every step of the way. Writer Rona Munro might have been tempted to have the characters speak in cod-Shakespearean thees and thous or period TV’s ghastly “bring me a cup of wine and purse of coin” but has thankfully resisted.
This is the third part of the trilogy of James plays and, arguably, this James is the most interesting. He gained the throne as a boy, restored Shetland and Orkney to Scotland thanks to a carefully staged marriage to a Danish princess, was bisexual and had a stupendously inglorious demise.
The king’s greed and instability in a time of radical change makes for tremendous storytelling. Matthew Pidgeon plays the king – more James Dean than James T Kirk – with nervy energy and from the beginning you just know things are not going to end well. If you see only one of the James plays see this one.
Just like the old, ironic Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” this was a period when political rhetoric was incendiary and public behaviour, political resentments and divisions were more outlandish than even Donald Trump’s attempts at gaining the US presidency.
We open at what seems a modern ceilidh before being transported back to the 1480s. But before we start the play’s director makes a short announcement. During the day the other two parts of the James trilogy have been performed and one of the actors sprained an ankle but carried on to the end of the show before being whisked to A&E. This gets a great cheer in the room. Subsequently tonight’s show will go on a little longer.
The goodwill towards the James plays is palpable. When they premiered at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Scottish independence referendum fever was at its height – politicians and public were engaged in “a conversation” though not necessarily with each other – the play said much about Scotland’s view of itself and place in the world. It’s still relevant now.
At an early juncture, in James’s parliament there’s talk of taxes and defence spending while the king is more concerned with choirs and cathedrals. He is passionate about his ideas to the extent that he can’t see his brother plotting against him nor the importance of compromise and coalition and bolstering your position from wherever you can find allies.
What makes James III, the play, so heartening is that it’s not all tub-thumping. James might be seen as a weak and angry man but he is also a pragmatist. He sees no reason why “big England” shouldn’t take over wee Scotland to everyone’s benefit. But, foolishly he doesn’t acknowledge the dangers of not playing the political game. He carries on with the laundry maid, he goes awol, he refuses to listen or speak to his advisers and snubs potential allies. Did I mention Donald Trump? Maybe James is a man with huge integrity, maybe he is just corrupted by power. “If you can think thing you can do it,” he says. Then disinherits his son.
The play is full of echoes of today – from public spending on grandiose projects we can’t afford to those politicians who rant and rave, oblivious to the concept of hubris. After the interval the band is back on stage playing a queasy yet familiar ditty. It turns out to be Human League’s great hit and the lyrics take on a horrible new meaning: “I shook you up/And turned you around/Turned you into someone new/...But don't forget it's me who put you where you are now./And I can put you back down too”.
Slowly the self-pitying James’s “artistic temperament” seem to get the better of him, he takes to the bottle and it’s a case of “see you, Jimmy”. It’s up to the queen to get things back on track, ensure the rightful heir reaches the throne and provide the rallying cry for a nation in torment. “The Scots have got f--- all except attitude!” she cries when the king abandons his country. She says at one point: “the best in you can sustain your nation” – a great line for a political speechwriter or a T-shirt.
This is a long, intriguing and richly textured play – at one point a newfangled mirror arrives from Venice (another kingly extravagance) and the queen and courtiers see themselves for the first time as they really are. Although she had an idea of all her flaws she likes what she sees in the reflection – not as bad as she imagined and with lots of potential. The analogy is clear.
If at times I wished the actors were projecting more – a packed Festival Theatre strained to catch some of the dialogue (fits of bronchial coughing in the auditorium didn’t help) this was a stupendous production. It had its longueurs which were thrown into relief by the pacey and dramatic reveal of the final act. Matthew Pidgeon is excellent as the reeling king in all his waywardness and serendipity. And Malin Crépin shows the iron will of the queen. Blythe Duff’s pallid Aunt Annabella plays it for laughs but is the one who speaks truth to power. But this is essentially an ensemble work and you really are engaged from start to finish.
The set and lighting transports us from castle grand gallery to rose garden simply and very effectively. Director Laurie Sansom makes the action leap from the page. All the scope and sweep of the story is here. No matter what your politics this truly is a play for today.
Friday 12 February
Saturday 13 February
Tour dates - www.nationaltheatrescotland.com