The James Plays, Edinburgh International Festival, theatre review: 'Thrilling and satisfying'

4.00

The pleasures are manifold and the food for thought is chewy and delicious

As Scotland’s Yes campaign looks to Scandinavia for political and cultural inspiration, Sophie Grabol, Danish star of The Killing is in Edinburgh, holding the stage like a 15th century Angela Merkel, illuminating the issues via six centuries of history.

Outgoing International Festival director Jonathan Mills promised to avoid the referendum in his farewell programme. In its place sits the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre’s ambitious series of history plays, James l, ll and lll, which avoids the currency issue while making the recent Salmond-Darling debate look like a game of dominos.

While England is a threat in the distance – at one point a petulant Jamie Sives, whose James lll has more than a whiff of Robbie Williams, wonders if he shouldn’t just invite them in and get it over with – the real threat comes from within. The crown is an essentially contested concept, with every laird and earl fingering his dagger while eyeing up his chances of the silverware. The throne is the least safe seat in the country.

Rona Munro’s three plays can stand confidently alone but, taken together, have a scale and reach that is thrilling and satisfying in equal measures. Laurie Samson, newish creative director of the National Theatre of Scotland, directs with confidence and brio in the poky, ebullient style that John Tiffany made the company’s signature.

Stephanie Hyam, David Mara and James McArdle in the James plays Stephanie Hyam, David Mara and James McArdle in the James plays

The cast (so complex that the programme includes something resembling an Excel spreadsheet) shifts across the three productions and never flags, even on a day-long three-show marathon. Grabol is wonderful as the dirk-sharp Danish queen, doing the sums behind the scenes, stage-managing the sexually incontinent Sives. His exasperatingly inappropriate regal whim of have a choir follow him to cheer up his dreary royal existence is one of the James plays’ many joys.

For audiences familiar only with her protracted stint in Taggart, Blythe Duff is a revelation. She is the enraged queen evicted from her throne after 18 years, a bitter but undefeated prisoner in a tower and then a wine-soaked mad auntie of the type recognisable from every Scottish wedding. Bathing live on stage. Sadly behind a curtain.

Quibbles are tiny (too much sub-Thick of It swearing in James I, a slightly overbaked court scene in James lll).The pleasures are manifold and the food for thought – about politics, national identity, the strength of family ties, the desirability of having every waking moment accompanied by a madrigal – chewy and utterly delicious.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition