In conversation: The James Plays

Published September 18, 2014

Historical stage epics are having something of a moment. After the Royal Shakespeare Company’s hugely successful double-bill Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, the National Theatre follows with The James Plays, Rona Monro’s staggering – not to mention given today’s referendum, topical – trio of plays that premiered this summer at the Edinburgh International Festival. If the RSC had you mind-boggled with Thomases, the NT matches with its Jameses.

Recounting the lives of three generations of Scottish kings, the trilogy consists of James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock, James II: Day Of Innocents and James III: The True Mirror. James McArdle plays James I, Andrew Rothney James II and Jamie Sives James III. McArdle in is one play (James I), Rothney in all three and Sives in two (James II and James III). Capiche?

If there was ever any worry about interviewing three actors playing character namesakes with two thirds also boasting their own James-related names – and there was; I was one James away from suggesting they always answer in historical order – it quickly disappeared upon meeting them during rehearsals at the NT’s South Bank home.

Like a real family – remember, even though McArdle may be younger than Sives in real life and his James I dead long before James III pops up on stage, McArdle is still his on stage Grandfather. Keep up – the dynamics between the three are clear from the moment we shake hands. While Sives – dressed in a Game Of Thrones alumni hoody for the many fans out there – quietly surveys the scene, Rothney is quick to answer thoughtfully and McArdle faster with an open passion for debate that is clearly as relished by the other two as it is by me. They’re as dramatically different – albeit with a common sense of humour only found in people who spend too much time together – as they promise each of the three plays to be.

From how 15th century events can affect audiences’ views on this week’s momentous Scottish referendum to why people who have trouble with understanding their accents will just have to “try harder”, we to discover why things are getting political on the South Bank.

Tell me a bit about your James.

McArdle: James I is the best king of the three. He’s the best looking, the most charismatic… no I’m joking. He was a prisoner king for 18 years in England and when we start the play he’s been brought back to Scotland to become King of Scotland. He has this new-age way of kingship that he wants to impose on Scotland that he thinks is rational and fair, by making it a more centralised government, taking the money and the taxes off the rich elite and giving it back to the poor. However, in his time in prison he has built up a lot of anger and hurt and pain, so when he goes back to Scotland and realises that his kingship isn’t really going to be embraced by the Scottish people, he has to become more ruthless and tyrannical. That anger that he’s built up unleashes itself.

Rothney: After the events that happened in James I, James II’s crowned at six-years-old. [The play’s] about how James II becomes a king and how he takes responsibility to be his own person. I play him from six to 18/19-years-old.

Sives: He comes on with his shoes on his knees.

Rothney: Yep, I’ve got a wee cap and wee shorts for six-year-old James and then I grow a beard for later.

Sives: James II’s much more claustrophobic I find when I’m watching it.

McArdle: They are really different [and they] look so different; James I is kind of Games Of Thrones-like in what it looks like and the epic story, James II is much darker, then James III is more modern.

Sives: James III is neglecting his kingly duties in favour of frivolity and childish behaviour. He’d like to think of himself as a renaissance man. He’s just very petulant and treats people pretty badly. His Queen [played by The Killing star Sofie Gråbøl] has to do the adult thing whilst he goes off and plays with choirs and stuff like that.

Play with choirs?!

McArdle: It’s like the iPod of the time! Only it’s a choir of 40…

Sives: Yes, he likes music and poetry and nice buildings, and he doesn’t really care about bureaucracy and stuff. At best, to be positive about him, he’s a romantic, but he’s very childish and petty and narcissistic.

Much of the ensemble is in all three plays. James, is there’s a sense that you’ve got the easiest job as you’re only in one?

McArdle: Oh my God, I get such a slagging off! “Part timer”… I don’t have an easy job, you know.

Sives: [Mocks seriousness] Well James I’s a hard part, there’s a lot to do in that.

Rothney: You’re doing really well!

McArdle: It’s harder if I come in and I haven’t done it for a couple of days; it’s tough for me. Different challenges for different situations! [All laugh]

Do you ever wish you could swap Jameses?

Rothney: I think we’d all want to be James McArdle sometimes.

McArdle: They take the piss out of me! I don’t know, I’d quite like to play James III when I’m older [smirks, while Sives laughs]…

When I sit and watch the plays I always imagine the kings interacting. I’d love James I to have a conversation with James III and say ‘You don’t know you’re born son!’

Sives: [Points at McArdle] That’s my granddad.

McArdle: Yep I’m his Granddad and when I watch it I do genuinely go [puts on furious face] ‘I fought so hard to get all this for you.’ If you’re going to maintain the status quo and wealth, it’s up to the king to be a good king… to watch James III be so flippant about it, honestly I sit in the audience going [whispers sinisterly] ‘You don’t know you’re born.’

Sives: He raves about your rose garden! Bless your heart.

McArdle: I know, I know. There’s this thing that James I plants this rose garden and this rose garden grows through to James III.

Roses aside, is the design very different for each play?

Rothney: The set generally is the same throughout but they’ve done really clever work with the wooden panels; James I is quite warm and weathered, James II is black and charred and it looks like a Minotaur ring, it’s very dark and then James III is so different, it’s so beautiful and bright and gold. It’s all about the personality of the show. The music is very specific as well.

The plays can be seen in any order and stand alone, but would you like people to see all three?

Rothney: I think it would be really rich and rewarding to see all three.

McArdle: I would really encourage people to see all three, maybe it’s because I’m the only person to get to do one and watch the other two; it’s so moving. There is such a sense of catharsis by the time we get to the end. I’m really encouraging my mum and dad to see the trilogy. They won’t [all laugh]. They’re coming down and I said ‘That’s a three show day, so you just sit and watch the other two’ and they said ‘I canny watch two, nine hours, no.’

Is it hard work doing a three show day as an actor?

Rothney: There is so little time between shows. I think on paper it’s an hour and a half,  but for us and the tech crew, there is such a quick turnaround. We’re bowing then we’ve probably got 20 minutes to get something to eat or rest, then it’s fight calls or some people are in make-up or mics. From an actor’s point of view, in James I I play such a different character to James II, the mind set and energy is completely different… there’s so many gear changes you have to do throughout the day. James III is such a relief, for me, because it’s so light…

McArdle: Your character’s quite cool in James III, isn’t he? Well I think he’s cool.

Rothney: Thanks mate. So I can take my foot off the gas a bit. It’s knowing where to put your energy and where to use the adrenaline to its best.

McArdle: I just feel like the people who are doing all three shows, you have to look after [them]. There’s a bit where Andrew and I fight in James I and he [once] fell and smacked his head on the back of the table and all I could think of was ‘James II…’ And your wellbeing, obviously!

Have you made any changes for the London run?

McArdle: Wee nips and tucks here and there. What we’re not changing is our accents.

Sives: Are we f*ck.

McArdle: We have had a lot of people going ‘Oh will you anglicise or calm it down for England?’

Do you find people asking that offensive?

McArdle: I don’t get offended, but I think those people are ignorant and stupid. There was a reviewer who was complimentary about the performances and stuff, but she said about James I ‘I don’t know why they insist on him being so Scottish if he’d spent so much time in England’. Watch the play and you’ll understand why! He went down when he was 10 and he was surrounded by a Scottish entourage. That’s so typical of cultural snobbery and that is rife in this country, especially amongst English audiences. No one questions the fact that Sofie’s character was in Scotland from when she was 10, she’s been in Scotland for 30 years and she’s playing it with a strong Danish accent; no one’s said ‘Why is she being so unbelievable Danish?’ People say ‘We can’t understand it.’ If you can’t understand our accents, you have to try harder. It’s not our problem.

Rothney: I would just say as well, how we speak is sort of a moot point anyway because they wouldn’t have spoken like this. With Shakespeare as well, it wouldn’t be in RP or even what you think of as Northern, it would be a different amalgamated accent.

McArdle: If Romeo and Hamlet were played Glaswegian it would be a political point. But if Romeo or Hamlet are done in RP, no one bats an eyelid. Romeo was Italian and Hamlet was Danish. It really irks me, as you can probably tell [laughs].

Do you think audiences will react differently to the show in London than they did in Edinburgh?

McArdle: Well we’ll be post-referendum here, which I think will be different. I’ll be interested to see what it will do to the plays post-referendum if it’s a yes or a no vote, because it will change the plays.

The referendum has been talked about a lot in reference to the plays. How are they related?

Rothney: Timing is probably a good point. It’s also about where Scotland wants to stand in the world, what it wants, who the people are, what the country is, what it can be. At the very end of James III there’s that question ‘What will Scotland want to be?’

McArdle: Because we have so little information about this referendum, because everyone’s lying to us essentially – you watch the debate and you just think ‘None of you are telling the truth’ – when you watch the plays, people then look to art [and] their emotive feelings to help determine.

My cousin came to see the play and said ‘By the end of act one of your play, I was voting yes and then by the end of act two I thought, no, I’m voting no!’ That’s what I like about the plays… it’s human, it’s not political.

Sives: It’s emotive. You get emotional about Scotland.

It must be exciting to be doing these plays within this political landscape?

Sives: We probably won’t realise it until later on and go ‘Jeez, that was a huge deal and we were at the National Theatre in London doing these plays… with strong Scottish accents!’

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"It’s also about where Scotland wants to stand in the world... At the very end of James III there’s that question ‘What will Scotland want to be?’"