REVIEW: James II – Day Of the Innocents, National Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

The National Theatre presents the James Plays
James II. Photo: Manuel Harlan

James II : Day of the Innocents
Olivier Theatre
25 October 2014
5 Stars

This, the second play in Rona Munro’s trilogy, The James Plays, now playing at the National Theatre, may take place on the same set as the first, but it is an entirely different beast.

Time shifts and swirls: scenes overlap or occur simultaneously but in different times; there are nightmare visions made corporeal (a Minatour-like Bull Headed Man) and some effective puppetry. All of these devices are used to striking effect to present the maelstrom of thoughts that haunt the mind of James II, the child who takes the throne after his father’s assassination. Over the course of the play, these spectres of the past and glimpsed nightmares of the present are overcome by the young monarch until, by play’s end, he has conquered his doubts and fears and can reign in his own right, unafraid.

Additionally, there is a constant sense of game-playing – whether it be hide-and-seek or no-rules football. This adds to the sense of the king as plaything and child; and underscores the machinations of the Court. Munro uses these metaphors, together with the time-shifts and nightmares, to weave a potent tale.

This James comes to the throne in very different circumstances to those that saw his father take the crown. Nobles murder James I and the Queen makes those responsible suffer in agony before their lives are taken. The “wee bairn”, as Meg, his nurse, puts it, is only six when he becomes the titular monarch and, unsurprisingly, he associates the kingship with blood, vengeance and terror. The nobles who rule don’t take him seriously and even as he approaches and then achieves majority, the nobles continue to treat him as their creature, someone to sign documents and grant them lands; not someone who can rule. A silly boy who suffers from nightmares, not their King.

James II has a life-long friend, William Douglas, a lad he grew up with, learnt manly things with, hunted with, drank with and loved wholeheartedly – like a brother, perhaps even more than that. But William’s father, Balvenie, now Earl of Douglas, who aided James I keep hold of the crown when the Stewart clan made their play for power, has become power-hungry and greedy and he has only one use for the King – to get him to do whatever Balvenie wants done in his ruthless pursuit of riches. And he unhesitatingly uses the friendship between his son and James II to achieve his ends.

The relationship between James II and William Douglas is the core of the play. James has no father and is haunted by what happened to him; William has a father and is taunted and tainted by him and his ambitions, his insatiable greed. Each man faces different inner demons and, in the end, William succumbs to his. His friendship with the King makes William think he is untouchable but, sensing the need to show his leadership and power, James sends him to Rome as his Papal Envoy. This humiliates and outrages William and he never forgives James.

Later, although he stands with James, and against his father, over the matter of whether, as was the Scottish tradition, fun and games should be the important thing on the Day Of Innocents, he never really is in sync with his monarch again. And after his father has him set upon and then beats him soundly himself (because he sided with James) his grip on sanity slips away entirely. He helps his father to a speedy death by plague and then erratically and treasonously runs his affairs, challenging James with words and deeds, including the cold blooded murder of a tax collector.

In a long and gripping scene, these two former best friends face off, James uncertain what to do, William all bravado and aggressive threat. But when William slights James’s french wife, Mary, the king snaps – he repeatedly and violently stabs his friend, snuffing out his life in a frenzy of passionate rage. It is startling to behold and marks the point when the king really becomes the leader of his people. He knew that William was a threat to the stability of Scotland, a threat James had to extinguish.

There follows another extraordinary moment – when James releases Isabella, the Stewart matriarch his father had imprisoned 30 years earlier. She is old and bitter, and has promised to kill him if ever released. But, in a scene which riffs on the one involving the Queen in the first play, even though she has the sword and the opportunity, Isabella does not kill the king. And while she did not dispatch the Queen because Isabella thought she had all the power, here she does not kill James II because she can see that he is a good king, good for Scotland.

The script and treatment of the material in the writing of this play is so different than the first, that one could be forgiven for thinking that a different writer was responsible. Munro flexes her considerable literary prowess to tell the tale of James II in a fresh and invigorating way. And Laurie Sansom’s fabulous production runs with that, producing a second play which is very different from the first in the trilogy; more in-depth psychological thriller, more detailed character study, more use of theme and allegory to produce winning results.

But, cleverly, there are constants which unite the plays – Meg, Isabella, Balvenie and Joan all provide continuity, especially Meg. And there is something about the manner of playing James that shows him clearly to be the son of James and Joan. Equally, casting the same actors to play James’ wife and one of his chief advisers allows echoes of their earlier roles (Queen Joan and Murdac Stewart) to resonate. The more things change the more they stay the same; sons marry their mothers.

Jon Bausor has tweaked the set for this play – no throne stands empty, overlooking events, as in the first play and the sword’s handle has the ability to erupt into passionate flames. The floor takes on a board game effect at key points, emphasising Munro’s central narrative about the Court players and their moves. Philip Gladwell’s lighting is moody and darker, adding to the nightmarish quality of the narrative.

Once again, the acting is world class.

Andrew Rothney is immaculate as James II. He clearly shows the character’s progression from frightened bairn to sound, regal statesman. It is a poignant and deeply committed performance and one that rings true in every respect. The frantic horror of his nightmares, real and imagined, is finely done as is his, at first, acceptance of the counsel of his elders and the growing sense of his own self, his father’s legacy and the need for non self-interested government of his people. Equally, he is unafraid to clearly show his love for his arranged French wife, his devotion to Meg and the ambiguous adoration/attachment to William. It’s a fearless performance, engaging and full of fire and energy.

Equally immaculate is Mark Rowley’s turn as William Douglas. This is easily the hardest role to pull off (of those in this and the first play) because there are so many facets to the character, so many capricious moments balanced against moments of loyalty, beauty and sincerity. Rowley’s accomplished turn makes it seem easy when it is fiendishly difficult. The stage fairly crackles with his energy and style.

Together, Rothney and Rowley deliver a key moment of incredible power. James II was born with a huge red birthmark across his face something which made him a figure of mockery, suspicion and fear. In an extraordinary moment in the second Act, William comes close enough to James to kiss him and reaches up, putting the palm of his hand over the birthmark, testing it, feeling it, realising it is as much as part of James as any other part of his body. James lets him do it, even though it is an act of deliberate, confrontational, violent intimacy. The moment crackles with power. It is only later that it becomes clear that that was the moment when James realised that William was out of control, not really his friend. Extraordinary.

Blythe Duff is wonderful as the bitter hag, Isabella, imprisoned but not cowed. Her scenes with Rothney are simply magnificent. Stephanie Hyam reprises briefly her role as Queen Joan (when she tells her son that her father’s murderers suffered, you know they really really did) and then plays the frightened French Queen Mary beautifully. Her two Queens are nothing alike, but both are memorable.

Sarah Higgins and Peter Forbes continue as Meg and Balvenie and each builds on the good work done in the first play. Forbes shows the changes to his character as complacency, power and greed ruin his inner soul – the moment when he “offered” himself as Chancellor was skin-crawling and his painful, ghastly death, hurried on by William’s callous ministrations, was conveyed with an horrific precision.

Rona Morrison is excellent as James’ sister, Annabella and Ali Craig and Gordon Kennedy excel as Crichton and Livingston, the King’s corrupt and self-interested advisers.

No one is anything other than terrific in the other roles – this is ensemble playing at its very finest.

Although denser and packed with imagery, symbolism and information, this second play seemed to pass by quicker than the first. And the first was not remotely slow. Somehow, the combination of all of the elements here, and the completely different production style and writing techniques, results in a fiery, fizzing frenzy which is as captivating as it is fast-moving and visceral.

Two down, one to go. Can Sansom and Munro make it a hat-trick of glorious theatre? Again – one is desperate to find out.

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