THE YEAR IS 1603, and at Holyroodhouse, King James VI is complaining about the help.
Neither God Nor Angel | Oran Mor, Glasgow | Rating ***
Almost all his worldly goods, it seems, have been packed up for the journey to London; for after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, the Westminster parliament has finally invited him to take up his inheritance as king of both countries. And most of his subjects are busy celebrating his departure, for James is not popular.
So when a young servant-boy called William finally answers his monarch’s irate call for more wine, the scene is set for one of those fantasy conversations all too common in Scottish costume drama, in which William demonstrates the (alleged) pawky egalitarianism of the Scots by being cheeky to his sovereign, and James complains bitterly about what a cold, ungrateful and fractious dump Scotland is.
All of this is exquisitely handled, in Tim Barrow’s latest historical drama, by Jimmy Chisholm as the monarch – all subtle intellect, blatant alcoholism, and frustrated homosexual desires – and Gavin Wright as the cheeky but stubbornly patriotic servant. It’s depressing, though, to see yet another Scottish historical drama that – like sections of the James Plays – attracts easy laughs by retailing worn-out metropolitan stereotypes of Scotland, and then tries, belatedly, to make amends by conceding that most of these comparisons are prejudicial tosh. Scottish theatre was doing far better than this at challenging stereotyped views of our history 30 years ago, when Liz Lochhead wrote Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off; and it’s hard to fathom why we’re now recycling this kind of old rope about our supposedly rugged and ungovernable northern outpost, however deftly written, and beautifully acted.
• Oran Mor, Glasgow, final performance today, and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Tuesday-Saturday next week.