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Review: The James Plays - James I

Adelaide Festival

The first show in The James Plays trilogy is everything you could want in theatre: a compelling story performed by an outstanding cast in magnificent costumes on a beautifully lit stage accompanied by superb sound and music.

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The James Plays

James I begins with a stirring Scottish song that has the audience enthralled and the action does not stop for two hours. It is exhilarating, and stands in the company of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata (1988 Festival).

In the opening scene, Scottish prisoners curse the English, who have just lost a battle; the insults are funny while the stakes are serious. Matthew Pidgeon has a powerful presence as the warring, pugnacious King Henry V and, in contrast, Steven Miller presents us with James, the imprisoned romantic poet and gentle soul.

Scotland’s history has always been about battles between large clans such as the Stewarts and the Douglases and, while they have been fighting among themselves, they have also had the English to contend with. Writer Rona Munro has taken historical figures but given them modern language, so that the feel of James I is contemporary.

Although the accents are very Scottish (and English), the diction of these accomplished actors is clear and crisp, making the language a delight; Munro has managed to juxtapose the drama, tragedy and history with some refreshing jokes and comedy.

Jon Bausor’s impressive semi-circular timber set, resembling a modest castle’s walls, complete with drawbridge and humble throne above, easily transforms locations. An enormous sword pierces the stage, establishing without doubt that these histories will be about those who live by the sword and will die by the sword.

The earthy Scottish costumes – in dark leather, grey, brown and purple cloth – reflect the poverty of Scotland, and are in stark contrast to the silk and finery of the English.

Miller is superb as the multi-faceted James, delivering a magnificent speech when he expects the lairds of Scotland to respect him as king. It parallels Shakespeare’s Henry V’s famous speech at Agincourt, and Miller delivers the rhetoric with subtlety, variety, nuance and strength; it is what turns the Scots in the king’s favour.

Rosemary Boyle is the English Lady Joan, who is forced to become James I’s wife. In a simply staged wedding ceremony, Miller and Boyle present a delightful and nervous young couple anxious about their future together. Given that it was an era of arranged marriages, there are some delicious lines, such as: “Love is a secret thing that happens in cupboards.”

Blythe Duff is impressive as Isabella Stewart, the matriarchal figure who comfortably shifts from appearing maternal, concerned and loving into an evil, taunting and threatening figure; her transformation from powerful clan leader to crest-fallen prisoner is acting of the highest order.  Sally Reid provides plenty of comedy and amusement as Meg the maid-in-waiting, while Peter Forbes  entertainingly portrays the bumbling laird Balvenie, of the Douglas family, who is desperately in need of land to increase his status.

This co-production by  the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Great Britain restores one’s faith in theatre.

Director Laurie Sansom and the entire ensemble and creative team have produced a work of art that entertains, educates and enthralls; the scene changes – with voices, action, loud drumming and choreographed battles – are exciting.

It is a world-class performance and congratulations are due to the Festival for having had the foresight to bring it to our city.  It is a salient reminder that the notion of murdering enemies to achieve power and control will only lead to the friends and enemies of the dead rising up to take revenge; a thought as relevant now as any time in history.

James I is part of The James Plays trilogy being presented at the Festival Theatre during the Adelaide Festival. There are further performances of James I today and tomorrow (February 27 and 28), with James II and II being presented on February 27 and 28, and March 1.

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