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The James Plays

Published 26 September 2014

What’s it all about?

Three kings. Hold your horses, it’s not Christmas just yet. Instead of gifts to a manger, this regal trio bring their own forms of governance to Scotland… which is trickier to fit into a catchy carol.

James I learned kingship from books while Henry V of England’s captive for nearly two decades. James II’s story of a horrifying, haunting childhood is as much a bromance and coming of age tale as it is about kingship. James III’s tale is different again. He cares more for art and music than he does his people or his family.

Who’s in it?

James McArdle, Andrew Rothney and Jamie Sives play the monarchs.

McArdle brings a softly spoken, contemplative nature to James I, slowly revealing his kingly qualities as he struggles with both his people and his marriage.

Rothney exposes the terror at the heart of a boy whose childhood is soaked with brutal violence before transforming into a considered statesman.

Sives delivers a petulant, childish James III with a fine line in temper. He also provides a spiteful, bullying Henry V in James I.

The excellent ensemble cast, who work their collective sporrans off, also feature fine turns from Blythe Duff as wrathful, malicious matriarch Isabella Stewart, Peter Forbes, who transforms from snivelling wretch to power-brokering land hoarder as Balvenie Douglas, Sofie Gråbøl as a quick-witted, sensual and stately Queen Margaret, and relative newcomer Stephanie Hyam whose fear-stricken Queen Joan in James I transforms to a safety-seeking bride of Frankenstein for James II, before Hyam switches characters to become a joy-filled, fun-loving Queen Mary.

What should I watch out for?

The giant claymore dominating Jon Bausor’s set, which makes you feel a little like an ant gazing at the sword in the stone.

The sweet awkwardness of James I and his new wife’s fumbling, stumbling wedding conversation.

The inclusion of the less than savoury Black Dinner in James II and the nightmares that follow. The historical event was one of the inspirations for Game Of Thrones’ social media-melting Red Wedding.

The ‘Scottish folk’ versions of Happy, Born This Way, Royals and Don’t You Want Me, Baby? the audience is treated to in James III.

In a nutshell?

From nightmarish demons and horrific killings to political jostling and The Human League, Rona Munro’s timely romping historical trilogy is a blood-spattered haggis of a treat.

What’s being said on Twitter?

@jennymco #JamesPlays Overheard @ interval during 3playsin1day: “I thought it might be too much. Now I never want it to end”. #nuffsaid @NTSonline

@NattieBuscombe Amazing day @NationalTheatre yesterday watching all 3 #JamesPlays. Fantastic ensemble storytelling. Loved it. Go to the next marathon in Oct!

Will I like it?

Like kilts, bagpipes and whisky, all three tales are very Scottish but very different. You’re likely to like one if not all of them.

James I is a classic history play, albeit with more modern dialogue and realistic personal relationships.

James II uses puppetry, physicality, imagery and nightmare to leap through time telling the boy king’s tale.

James III dials up the campness with leather kilts, flowing fabrics and Lady Gaga to follow the third king’s story.

Each story can be seen in isolation, but watching them together enriches the experience… like teaming haggis with neeps, tatties and a wee dram. (My apologies to our Scottish readers…)

The James Plays run at the National Theatre until 29 October. Tickets can be booked through the National Theatre website.

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