Theatre review: The James Plays, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The Great Sword is once again plunged like a gathering-stick into the tage of the Festival Theatre.

The Great Sword is once again plunged like a gathering-stick into the tage of the Festival Theatre.

The James Plays | Rating: **** | Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

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Eighteen months on from their first performance, the National Theatre of Scotland’s mighty James Plays are back for an international tour - this time with a genuine real-life drama, as Andrew Rothney, who plays James II, seriously injured his knee in an onstage football match during Saturday’s performance, yet managed to complete the intense final scenes of the trilogy’s central play, before being taken to hospital.

Despite some rewriting - and the complete disappearance of the disturbing puppet-sequences in James II - Rona Munro’s trilogy about the Stewart kings of the 15th century remains a tantalising mix of soaring large-scale drama, and occasional slides into uninspired language and easy anachronism. The first play, James I, is by far the most perfect, a terrific Scottish reworking of a classic Shakespearean story about kingship, with Steven Miller and Rosemary Boyle superb and touching as the young King James I - returning from 18 years as a prisoner in England - and his even younger English bride Joan, who find themselves confronted by John Stahl and Blythe Duff’s terrifying Murdoch Stewart clan.

James II is darker, more meditative, and perhaps a shade over-long and repetitive, in its exploration of James’s slow emergence from a bloody childhood in which he witnessed his father’s murder at the age of six, and his doomed friendship with William Douglas, of the over-mighty Douglas clan.

And James III - brilliantly led by the charismatic team of Matthew Pidgeon and Swedish actress Malin Crepin - is a dazzling, almost skittish court tragi-comedy about a post-modern bisexual king who doesn’t want to be king, and his much more regal and capable queen. Yet in Laurie Sansom’s thrilling, magnificently orchestrated production - with terrific design by Jon Bausor, lighting by Philip Gladwell, movement by Neil Bettles and music by Alasdair Macrae - it’s all delivered with such gusto, skill and bravado that the audience are past caring, and cheer it to the echo anyway.

Which is the entire story of this astonishing piece of event theatre: huge, ground-breaking, magnificently performed, full of both truth and nonsense, and infinitely worth seeing, for anyone who cares about Scotland’s past, or our future.

• The James Plays at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, until Saturday; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 30 March-2 April, and the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 8-10 April.

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