This epic U.K. import brings a thrilling contemporary aspect to the history of Scotland’s 15th-century kings and queens.
James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock
James II: Day of the Innocents
James III: The True Mirror
When you have an industrial venue, you need industrial-strength theatre. That’s what we get with The James Plays, the theatrical centrepiece of this year’s 10th annual Luminato Festival at the Hearn Generating Station. This touring U.K. import is a trilogy about the 15th-century kings of Scotland that’s Shakespearean in ambitions and in size: each play clocks in at close to three hours with an intermission, and you can binge-watch all three this Saturday and Sunday in an 11-hour marathon (with breaks).
If that sounds daunting, the plays themselves aren’t. Scottish playwright Rona Munro’s retelling of these medieval histories is resolutely contemporary in language, perspective, and—by the time we get to James III—costume as well. Where Luminato often likes to showcase the avant garde or the cutting edge (for which, see Situation Rooms, also at this year’s fest), The James Plays sail in the same mainstream as Game of Thrones and Wolf Hall.
Originally produced in 2014 by the National Theatre of Scotland at the Edinburgh International Festival, then later at Britain’s National Theatre in London, the trilogy’s raw, stripped-down style certainly suits the raw, stripped-down Hearn, the defunct 1950s-era power station in Toronto’s Port Lands whose redesign for Luminato is a celebration of the site’s grittiness. (Think: lumpy concrete floors, dangling wires, and lots of re-purposed shipping containers.) The Hearn Theatre itself, though, is comfortable enough, with tiered seating for 1,200, cushy chairs, good sightlines, and decent acoustics. If you really want to get close to the action, there are also two boxes of seats overlooking the two-level stage.
And then there’s that stage, pierced by a gigantic broadsword in John Bausor’s bold set design, as if to indicate that—surprise, surprise—the history of medieval Scotland is a violent one. Although much of the violence we witness is domestic, so to speak, as a succession of Stewart monarchs find themselves beset with scheming Scottish noblemen who’d like to oust them from the throne.
James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock opens with a sly stab at Shakespeare: Henry V, the Bard’s beloved warrior king, appears here as a crazily belligerent war-monger (Matthew Pidgeon) who bullies the sensitive, poetry-writing James (Steven Miller). James has been a prisoner of the English for 18 years, but now Henry has returned him to Scotland to rule over a dirt-poor country and a clutch of resentful relatives who refuse to kneel to his authority.
There’s a sweet scene early on when gentle James gets to know Joan (Rosemary Boyle), his designated English bride—but soon enough the young king has to show some steel. There are echoes of Macbeth as he seeks to consolidate his power through treachery and murder, while the wife and mother of his victims, Isabella Stewart (Blythe Duff), ends up rattling her chains in prison and calling down curses like old Queen Margaret in Richard III.
Where the first play is a tale of transformation, James II: Day of the Innocents is one of trauma. We first meet the son of James I as a six-year-old cowering in a trunk after the assassination of his father and abandonment by his mother. His only friend is another lad, William Douglas (Andrew Still), who vows to stick by him. But as James II (Andrew Rothney) grows up to master his fears and throw off his crooked advisors, their friendship turns into a rivalry with bloody consequences.
Where the first play is intense and exciting, the second—despite some powerful moments—begins to drag and feel like just a variation on the first. But wait for it: the third play, James III: The True Mirror, is the best. It gives us the two most compelling characters in the whole trilogy: an arrogant, preening, bisexual, and totally loopy James III—the Caligula of Scottish kings—and his can-do Danish queen, Margaret. James III, portrayed by Pidgeon with the mad flair we first glimpsed in his Henry V, is an aesthete/despot more interested in buying wines and building cathedrals than dealing with the business of running a country. One of his whims is to be escorted everywhere by a full choir singing his praises—leading to a couple of hilarious scenes that nearly tip the play into Monty Python and the Holy Grail territory.
What’s a queen to do with a husband like that? Margaret, played with bracing sanity and immense charm by Malin Crépin, ends up taking charge. The turning point comes after James—who has left her for a laundress named Daisy (Fiona Wood)—gives Margaret the gift of a newfangled Venetian mirror, allowing her to see her reflection properly for the first time. He’s spitefully hoping it will depress her, but it has the opposite effect, revealing to her that she’s not the aging crone she imagined herself to be. “I like this woman!” she exclaims repeatedly, staring at her image in the mirror with awe and delight. We like her, too.
Margaret’s new self-confidence leads her to bypass an admiring privy councillor (Ali Craig) who wants her to bless his planned coup d’état and take over parliament herself. Her memorable speech to the lords about the thankless task of running a government is a nice ironic twist after watching so many greedy nobles trying to seize the throne. And, while Munro gives us strong women throughout the three plays, it’s with the final one that they really play a central part. The scenes with Margaret, James’s aunt Annabella (Duff), and a pert lady-in-waiting (Dani Heron) inspire some of Munro’s liveliest writing—especially when the three get the conceited little Daisy in front of that truth-telling mirror.
Director Laurie Sansom’s staging is full of bravura sequences: a stunningly interwoven battle and childbirth in James I; a portentous football match between the houses of Stewart and Douglas in James II; and a solemn act of penitence before parliament by James III that abruptly turns into a big, flamboyant “fuck you,” complete with some provocative homoeroticism.
The acting is excellent. Duff’s contrasting old ladies, the fiery Isabella ,and the jocular Annabella are equally superb. Peter Forbes makes a striking and moving character arc between the first two plays as the striving senior Douglas, who dies pathetically while still obsessing over land. Sally Reid as a faithful family retainer winningly embodies the sturdy Scottish peasant. Then there are the Jameses themselves, the wild-eyed Pidgeon, Miller’s sympathetic James I, and Rothney’s anguished James II, sporting a port-wine stain that covers half his face.
A musical stream runs through the three plays, becoming a flood in the final one, with a Celtic pop band and dance-party scenes that suggest a Scottish version of Once. The score, by Paul Leonard Morgan and Will Gregory, includes musical settings of poetry by the real James I, while freaky James III finds an appropriate anthem in Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.”
We’re getting a surfeit of familiar Shakespearean kings and queens this summer, with Macbeth and a conflation of the Richard II-Henry IV-Henry V plays (Breath of Kings) at Stratford, as well as Hamlet at Shakespeare in High Park. But it would be a shame to miss this thrilling introduction to the lesser-known rulers of Scotland, that rugged country whose immigrants played such a huge role in shaping Canada.