The James Plays reviews – 'an astonishing achievement'

Aug 13, 2014

An enchanting trilogy illuminates the reigns of three little-known Scottish monarchs

National Theatre of Scotland/National Theatre of Great Britain
What you need to know

Rona Munro's new trilogy of plays covers the little-known reigns of the first three James Stewarts, who ruled Scotland in the middle of the tumultuous 15th century.

Each of the plays, directed by Laurie Sansom, runs for two-and-a-half hours. In this time of campaigning for Scottish independence, the productions mark the first collaboration between the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Great Britain.

The individual plays are performed at Edinburgh Festival Theatre on various dates until 22 August, with all three performed in one day on 16, 17 and 20 August. The shows transfer to the National Theatre, London SE1 from 10 September.

What the critics like

"The script is the star", says Charlotte Runcie of the Daily Telegraph, and Munro's deft writing allows the plays to "capture something elusive about Scottishness: that potent mix of individual spirit, darkness, alcohol and loyalty that can seem so foreign to the rest of Britain". It is more than a reaction to the referendum, they  are "an astonishing dramatic achievement".

Others praise the cast, and Michael Coveney of Whats On Stage sings the praises of a "fine company of actors, all three kings outstanding, Sophie Grabol enchanting, and big ballsy performances from Blythe Duff as Queen Isabella and Sarah Higgins as Meg".

The plays serve up plenty of "food for thought" says Anna Burnside of The Independent, addressing issues of "politics, national identity, the strength of family ties, the desirability of having every waking moment accompanied by a madrigal", which make the productions "chewy and utterly delicious". 

What they don't like

The second play has been identified as the weakest of the bunch. Variety's Mark Fisher complains that the production "fails to find coherence in the fragmented and ill-defined second play", while Dominic Maxwell in The Times says the second story "suffers from a confusing, fussily staged first half bogged down by too much information, puppetry that jars with the rest of the staging, and naff musical stings".

Mure Dickie, writing in the Financial Times, feels "the pace flags a little" in play two, while Michael Billington of The Guardian says the same chapter "lacks something".

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