Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Theatre review: James II - Day of the Innocents

Rona Munro's James Plays are a trilogy, but each is meant not only to stand alone, but also to have its own distinct flavour. So it is with James II - Day of the Innocents, although arguably it's got two of them: After the epic action of James I we have something more intimate, centred on friendship and family, but before we can have that the hero, and the audience, have to face horrors. James I having been murdered, James II (Andrew Rothney) becomes king at the age of six. Too young to rule, he is a pawn in the wealthy earls' power struggles, even to the point of being kidnapped a couple of times as leverage. Livingston (Gordon Kennedy) finally gets the upper hand thanks to the infamous Black Dinner1, in which the Earl of Douglas and his young brother are invited to dine with the king and, in violation of all the laws of hospitality, captured and killed. A childhood of bloodshed done in his name has left James with nightmares that persist well into his teens.

And, in an audacious move, this is how Munro presents this part of the history, with almost all of the first act taken up by one of James' recurring nightmares. It's deliberately disjointed, Rothney's James sometimes reliving the action himself, sometimes watching helpless as a puppet self goes through it. The events twist and repeat in authentically dreamlike fashion, which director Laurie Sansom brings a real edge of horror to.

One recurring theme that's been running through this first act is James' friendship with William Douglas (Mark Rowley,) and after the interval this takes centre stage as the boys grow up. In common with the first play, James II has at its heart a character development that sees a man work out how to be king in often brutal ways, a turning point being the titular Day of the Holy Innocents, marked by a thrillingly-staged football match, and also the day when James takes power back from Livingston.

Having played James' mother, Stephanie Hyam returns as his wife Mary (casting by Dr S. Freud) and is once again a scene-stealer, particularly funny when Mary describes a wildly inappropriate conversation with a bishop. But her increasing influence on James leads to William feeling left out, setting up the play's tragic conclusion. The two leads are both excellent, Rothney's thoughtful king a real contrast to the bloodthirsty rebel he played in the first play, and Rowley complex as a man who's ruthlessly beaten by his father even into his twenties, and has developed a reckless nature to cope with the brutal world he's born into.

The giant sword sticking out of Jon Bausor's set bled last time, this time it bursts into flame (we were thinking maybe it could do an As You Like It and spew confetti for part 3?) We saw this one from the front of the stalls, an appropriate viewpoint for an intimate, psychological take on the history play (and a view of how good Adele Brandman and Suzanne Scotcher's makeup is, the famous birthmark on James' face even covering Rothney's eyelids.) I've heard people describe this middle play as the weak link, but personally I found it even more ambitious than the first. Thanks to a much less enigmatic central character, it's certainly more of an emotional rollercoaster.

James II - Day of the Innocents by Rona Munro is booking in repertory until the 29th of October at the National Theatre's Olivier.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

1I saw some article about The James Plays snark that they prove George R.R. Martin should have based his books on Scottish history rather than the Wars of the Roses. I don't know if it's these plays or Game of Thrones the writer wasn't really paying attention to, but I think it's pretty common knowledge that the Red Wedding is directly inspired by the Black Dinner.

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