The James Plays
Scottish king James I has been murdered and his wife, Joan (Rosemary Boyle), is desperately trying to hide and protect her son, James II (Andrew Rothney). He is hidden in a large chest, but Lord Livingstone (John Stahl) offers Queen Joan the opportunity for her own safe passage in exchange for the whereabouts of her son.
The stately Lord Livingstone then takes control of the young boy king and, in effect, holds power in Scotland. Rosemary Boyle seamlessly transforms from James’ mother to Mary, his wife of French heritage.
James II is something of a psychological thriller and the machinations and political manouevring of Scottish lords is seen through the eyes of two boyhood friends.
The young James is haunted by recurring visions and nightmares, and to escape he returns to his chest for security and comfort. By re-enacting snippets of scenes and dialogue, interwoven with music and lighting changes, this National Theatre of Scotland and National Theatre of Great Britain co-production gives us a visual insight into his troubled mind.
The young William Douglas befriends James and is someone whom the young king can turn to. Balvenie (Peter Forbes), William’s father, who in the play James I appeared initially to be a bumbling, desperate and somewhat feeble lesser lord, has become a wealthy landowner and his obsession with land, power and status lead him to being a cruel father.
Above the stage, Blythe Duff, as Isabella Stewart, remains imprisoned and curses the young James, prophesying that he will become as dark and evil as his father.
Philip Gladwell’s lighting of the Festival Theatre creates a range of locations and atmospheres, while director Laurie Sansom’s staging often has central action complemented by softly lit characters elsewhere on stage as a reminder of the consequences of the central players’ decisions.
As in James I, the ensemble is excellent and each individual character is drawn crisply: Sally Reid provides comedy and fun as Meg; Dani Heron is delightful as Annabella, James II’s sister; John Stahl is imposing as Livingstone, who manipulates the king’s innocence for his own gain, and David Mara brings a welcome sense of steadiness as the Earl Crichton.
Day of the Innocents belongs to Andrew Rothney as James II and Andrew Still as William Douglas, the childhood friends who become bitter rivals.
The company manages to stage an entertaining soccer game which ought to be fun, but turns sour when it comes to represent the long-standing disputes between the Stewarts and the Douglases. Still’s portrayal of the friendship, envy, jealousy and pride that sees William refusing to take orders from anyone, even the king, quite brilliantly slips into madness and hate. Rothney, as the birth-marked James, is excellent in his transition from childhood to manhood while retaining the sense of being a damaged person.
James II continues the narrative of the Scottish kings but gives us a different theatrical experience in its detailed focus on the way power can eat away and destroy individuals.
James II – Day of the Innocents will be presented at the Festival Theatre again on Tuesday, March 1, as will the third play in the trilogy, James III. The season for James I has now ended.