…AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
If the first play began with a ragged brawl and taunt, the second with a tenebrous nightmare of childhood, this one starts with a romping ceilidh: modern in dress , with an informal James III chatting up a laundry-maid called Daisy while his cool, sophisticated Danish Queen Margaret sees off ambassadors with diplomatic finesse. When James does ascend the throne – still poised above, between the distant stalls – it is to fling one leg over the arm, pout and demand 60,000 of taxation to fund a pilgrimage to Amiens Cathedral. He is all for cathedrals, madrigals and French wine, and demands a personal choir to follow him everywhere harmonizing about gillyflowers.
The Estates of Parliament are not amused. There is poverty, unrest, invasion threatened. The petulant monarch continues with his wine-tasting, ignores the English threat of invasion and fleet-seizing, and drags his queen off to bed. Frankly, as a leader he makes Shakespeare’s Richard II look like Churchill.
The great sword still looms over the stage, but the abrupt transition to modernity – with damask hangings instead of the battered medieval planking – can be a bit of a problem. Maybe it was necessary to illustrate, in more modern style, the matter of an irresponsible leader. But appreciation is hampered by the fact that until a couple of moments late on, Jamie Sives’ monarch is, frankly, an irritating little git with no hinterland to excuse his uselessness (I cannot for a minute believe this as the child crowned on the battlefield, even when he relates it). His preening contempt for brother, sons, ministers, and wife is pure soap opera: Dynasty with a capital D this time.
However, Munro’s point is that it all hangs on Sofie Grabøl (from The Killing) as Queen Margaret, and she is terrific: authoritative, human and interesting, leading another life among the women, notably Blythe Duff’s fine Annabella, remembered from the second play. There is perhaps a bit too much ultra-modern middle-aged female-empowerment in her keen Nordic affection for accountancy and in the odd sequence when the King provides her with a new Venetian mirror , a novelty in the age we are pretending they live in despite their modern eveningwear. She croons “I like this woman!” more than twice, making a rather heavy self-help-bookish point about being “happy in your own skin”.
To be honest, this one runs about fifteen minutes too long, and patience is fading by the time young Jamie (a very strong Daniel Cahill) defies his Dad’s vapid irresponsible aestheticism . James III executes a curious disco-king moment in Parliament “I gave you glitter! I was the sparkle!” and vamooses; that his son, rather than seeing a therapist, goes all medieval hair-shirt about parricide drags you suddenly, unconvincingly, back into the 15th century..
Not my favourite. But some have hugely enjoyed its jokes (very good ones in the bath scenes) and its deliberate modern references, notably Margaret’s exasperated up-summing of Scotland with “You lot , you’ve got fuck-all except attitude”. So, horses for courses. And overall, the James Plays are a towering achievement, a proud collaboration between two great National Theatres.
Rating for play No.3: three