ISHR visits the James Plays in a Day
February 22, 2016 Leave a comment
Blog post written by PhD student Morvern French
On 6 February 2016 members of ISHR descended on Edinburgh to take in The James Plays in a day. Written by Rona Munro, the plays focus on the often turbulent reigns of the fifteenth century Stewart kings James I, James II, and James III. We were seated on scaffolding on the stage, which was also utilised by the actors during their performances, meaning that we were often within touching distance of the excellent cast.
James I opened in the final years of the reign of Henry V of England, where the Scottish king was held prisoner until 1424. James was portrayed as a decisive but ineffective king, whose desire to impose an English model of government was unpopular. His attempts to bring the nobility of Scotland, particularly the Albany Stewarts, under royal control were interpreted by his subjects as material greed and tyranny. A character popular among the ISHR group was Isabella, the shrewd and formidable matriarch of the Albany family, played by Blythe Duff.
James I’s bloody murder occurred offstage, its chaotic aftermath – the minority of James II – forming the first act of the second play. The youth and powerlessness of the new king was powerfully conveyed through his tendency to hide in a large wooden kist: a habit he lost as the play and his reign progressed. Again we saw the familiar theme of a struggle to assert royal power, this time over the territorially ambitious Black Douglases, in which James eventually succeeded. His murder of William, the 8th earl of Douglas, was portrayed as the culmination of a long friendship increasingly affected by mutual distrust.
James III, the final play in the trilogy, was very different both aesthetically and in performance style. Music and song were extensively utilised, often to humorous effect, most notably in James’s maintenance of a choir to sing his praises wherever he went (including parliament). A personal highlight was when a seemingly remorseful James, who had been criticised by his nobles for his arbitrary and eccentric kingship, defiantly ripped off a penitential garment to reveal bright red trousers and a gold lamé blouse.
All in all, the plays were highly entertaining and thought-provoking, and a must-see for anyone interested in Scottish history.