THE JAMES PLAYS GET OFF TO A TERRIFIC START…
This one’s a stormer: thrilling, funny, vigorous, beguiling, accessible, a gripping and entertaining blend of the epic and the intimate. James McArdle (it’s his only appearance in the trilogy) appears first as the hostage of the ailing Henry V, a still, watchful, deep-felt exile after eighteen years’ captivity, a lonely poet-prince torn from Scotland at the age of ten. Henry decrees that he must marry one of his English cousins Joan, return home, raise his ransom and stop his countrymen siding with the French. He must accept the rules of medieval royalty: “You have to fuck people you don’t know and execute their relatives!”
Yet despite Munro’s mischievous demotic there is solemnity too, always a sense that these things matter, that beyond the court peasants starve. The opening tolls a great bell, over a ferocious brawl of loutish captured Scots and a chant both martial and melancholy. But just as you begin to wince at the farouche struggles of sweaty, hairy medieval manhood aflame with profanity and roiling testosterone, Munro switches the scene to the Queen-to-be, Joan.
Anxiously housewifely, expecting royal visitors, here is a rushed chatelaine fretting about supplies and the fact that they have no minstrel to greet the visitors -“Nobody here can hold a tune since blind Eric choked on an apple”. Stephanie Hyam is wonderful in the role; so is Sarah Higgins as Meg, a cheerful Scottish lady-in-waiting sent to persuade her that for all the primitivism she’ll love Scotland “Tall skies, rowan trees, fresh silver fish and dancing”. The awkward, compelled courtship of the royal pair is an unexpected delight: never thought I would hear gales of fond laughter across the Olivier at a dynastic wedding-ceremony. Or indeed witness the official wedding night defloration on a four-poster surrounded by louche leather-clad and seriously drunken nobles. Munro indicates that Joan takes a good while to get over this.
James’ struggle pits him against the resident Stuart cousins: the mop-haired heroic patriarch Murdac (Gordon Kennedy, a key figure in all three plays in different roles) , his ferocious sons and their mother Isabella. Their landed arrogance entails casual torture of the common people (a woman daring to complain is shod, horse-nails hammered on her hands and feet). Defying them, McArdle is a superb James, all tense national pride shot through with the private neediness of his lost childhood. His speech about Scotland’s quality and dignity is so stirring that it could have swung the referendum in moments.
This struggle, and his lonely yearning for the love of his frightened little queen creates a real story: epic but personal, suddenly solemn at times, dramatically intense as he stiffens for the final battle which – thrilling, balletic, intense – rages literally around and upon the great bed where Joan lies in labour. The seeds of his coming murder are sown by a violent necessary betrayal, the price of kingship in a savage age: Joan watches the invisible beheadings with eyes open, hoping that the fluttering of her gown in the bitter wind disguises her trembling.