AUDIENCES are getting the opportunity to take their seats in a “people’s parliament” close to the stage to watch one of the Edinburgh International Festival’s most high-profile productions.
An extra 100 tickets for each performance are being released for The James Plays, a trilogy chronicling the reigns of three Scottish kings. The makeshift seats – available at a fraction of the cost of other tickets for the plays – have been built around the Festival Theatre stage and have been compared to a “gladiatorial pit” by the trilogy’s director, Laurie Sansom.
Theatre-goers who opt for the £15 seats will have the same perspective on the performance as the actors, including Sofie Gråbøl, who plays Queen Margaret of Denmark, and Blythe Duff, who plays Isabella.
Those choosing this £15 ticket will take their seat in a “people’s parliament” overlooking the courts of the Stewart kings who ruled over an independent Scotland in the 15th century.
Mr Sansom, artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, which is co-producing The James Plays with the National Theatre of Great Britain, insists they will be the “best seats in the house”. The tickets were released after finishing touches were made to the huge production.
Written by Aberdeen-born Rona Munro, The James Plays trilogy will get its world premiere this weekend. James McArdle, Andrew Rothney and Jamie Sives will be playing kings James I, II and III respectively.
Mr Sansom said: “The idea for the on-stage seats actually came as we were trying to find a venue in Edinburgh for the show.
“Because of the scale of it, we knew it had to be a large-scale venue. But I resisted putting it in a proscenium arch venue where it would be something precious and separate from the audience.
“There would have been around 40 to 100 people who made up the ‘three estates’ in the parliament in the 15th century, so we’ve created seating banks for around 100 people on the stage.
“It is somehow about making the playing as free-flowing, fast-paced and muscular as possible, rather than it being picture-framed and flying in bits of set. It is like an amphitheatre, arena or gladiatorial pit.
“If you are on that seating then you are watching people watch it, so you are really aware that Scotland is watching itself all the time.”
Ms Munro added: “You will definitely see things that the rest of the audience will not.
“The nature of our actors is that they are doing everything in close-up as well as for the very back of the theatre. You are actually seeing nuances that will not be visible to the stalls.”
Meanwhile, Danish actress Gråbøl, who is best known for her role as detective Sarah Lund in cult Scandinavian crime drama The Killing, has admitted she is “terrified” about taking to the stage at the EIF for what will be her first English-speaking theatre role..
She told The Scotsman: “You have to work so hard [to perform in a foreign language]. But to put myself in this situation, so far away from my safe zone. It has given me so much more freedom somehow.
“I think I will be feeling terrified at the first performance. I’m so much looking forward to the opening being over.
“I know it’ll be such a joy to do these plays, but right now it is quite frightening and quite mad.”
The James Plays is the first ever co-production between NTS and the National Theatre, and the show is due to transfer to London in October.
One of the biggest productions to be staged by the EIF for years, the three plays are being performed at the Festival Theatre by a 20-strong ensemble over the course of two weeks, with some of the shows staggered to allow audiences several chances to see the complete trilogy in the one day.
Ms Munro said: “I always thought it would be wonderful if we could do the show with one company of actors and do the plays back to back. That is actually impossible, but we seem to have pulled it off.
“I would recommend people see the plays in order if they can and all three in a day will be an experience for everyone. They will see the most extraordinary company of actors do the most extraordinary things.”
Mr Sansom added: “There have been times in the process where I’ve thought: is this actually possible? The really difficult bit is opening all three plays in the trilogy at the one time. It is of a different magnitude of complication and admin hell to get all three shows up and running together.”
Glasgow-born McArdle, who will appear alongside Blythe Duff in the first instalment of the trilogy, said: “It was actually the Scottish actor Ian McDiarmid, who is on the board of NTS, who first spoke to me about The James Plays, as I’d worked with him a couple of times, and said he thought I should read the scripts.
“I was a wee bit sceptical at first, to be honest, as I thought it was going to be a bit dry. But when I read them I thought they were, by far, the best things I have ever read. I just thought that I had to play James I.
“I’ve never worked in Scotland in the three years since I graduated from RADA in London and did not have a relationship with NTS, so I was coming to them new, although it was a bit less intimidating because Laurie was brand new there.
“I have never worked so hard for an audition in my life. I just love playing the part so much. It’s been by far the best job I’ve ever done.
“It is like watching an episode of Rome or Game of Thrones. The plays are so realistic, modern and accessible, and the drama in them is genuinely exciting.
“What is more exciting about the plays is that the stories are true. When people leave the theatre they will realise it is part of their own history that has been completely hidden from us.”
Tickets for The James Plays are still available from the EIF box office.