Review: The James Plays at Sheffield Lyceum

James Trilogy
 Matthew Pidgeon as James III and Malin Crepin as Margaret, Queen of Scots.  Credit Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
James Trilogy Matthew Pidgeon as James III and Malin Crepin as Margaret, Queen of Scots. Credit Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
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In The James Plays, Rona Munro’s trilogy about James I, II and III of Scotland, an enormous sword dominates the set, dwarfing the actors.

Some of the audience sit on the stage, in circular rows, giving this touring production an intimacy remarkable for such a large theatre as Sheffield Lyceum.

The three plays are self-contained, but the combined effect is wonderfully resonant. The language is contemporary Scots, so that the presentation of 15th century history feels relevant to the present.

In The Key Will Keep the Lock, James I struggles to assert his power; while his love for his wife, Joan, is corroded by her fear of the dangers of their life.

In Day of the Innocents, the events are seen through the eyes of James II, a vulnerable child who keeps trying to escape from the nightmare of reality by hiding in a trunk.

In The True Mirror, James III, vain, artistic, fickle, fails to manage the kingdom. His wife, Margaret, is much better equipped to rule.

In many of the scenes the perspective of the female characters is crucial. The presence of women is one of the strengths of these plays – a corrective to more traditional accounts. Public and private themes are intertwined. The conventions of masculinity are questioned. Relationships between fathers, sons, brothers and friends are examined with insight and humour. But the central concern is national identity. What makes us who we are? The trilogy is a contribution to current debates, relevant to Scotland, but also beyond.

The James Plays tour to Theatre Royal, Nottingham, on June 11 and 12.