If it’s true there was much at stake for the early kings of Scotland as they tried to establish order in turbulent times, it is equally true that everything is riding on playwright Rona Munro’s trilogy of historical 15th-century dramas, “The James Plays.” Not only are these three premieres the centerpiece of the theater program of the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival, but they mark the first collaboration between the National Theater of Scotland (NTS) and the National Theater of Great Britain. Happily, apart from a wobble in the middle play, the gamble has paid off. “The James Plays” take a little-known period of history and turn it into a bold, gripping and funny piece of theater.
Think of history plays and it’s impossible not to think of Shakespeare. It’s a mark of Munro’s ambition — and her tongue-in-cheek irreverence — that the first major character we see on stage in “James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock” is Henry V. Rather than the high-minded rhetorician of Shakespeare’s play, however, this English king is a foul-mouthed fighter, the muscular equal to the prisoners in his charge who jeer at him like soccer hooligans. The monarchy of 1420 was not the refined system of order and deference we know today but, as the playwright presents it, a brutal and fiercely contested expression of power.
The journey across the three plays, from the return of James I to his native Scotland after 18 years of imprisonment through the birth of the child-king James II in 1430 and the reign of James III from 1460, is the story of a monarchy slowly defining itself. When James I (a romantic fully capable of cruelty in James McArdle’s performance) claims the Scottish throne, it’s a major effort to persuade the lords and nobles even to kneel to him. Forever jockeying for power, they are not given to regarding anyone as their social superior. This James may be an educated, poetry-loving aesthete but, in a semi-lawless land, he knows only brute force can bring about change. Two generations later, however, we find James III (flamboyant, hard-edged Jamie Sives) living the life of a spoiled brat in narcissistic pursuit of pleasure.
There are more Shakespearean echoes in “James II: Days of the Innocents,” in which the maturing king, emotionally damaged yet purposeful in actor Andrew Rothney’s hands, severs his childhood friendships in the same way Shakespeare’s Henry dissociates himself from Falstaff. The conduct of kings is one of Munro’s themes; so too is the birth-pangs of a modern nation, the way a poor, feudal, violent society can begin to find stability and common cause. It’s no coincidence that, a month away from Scotland’s referendum on independence, “James III: The True Mirror” culminates in a galvanizing speech about self-determination and taking a leap into the unknown.
That speech is delivered by Sofie Gråbøl, a cult favorite in the UK thanks to her lead role in the original Danish series of “The Killing” and a compelling presence here as the Danish Queen Margaret, who has limited tolerance for the self-pity and self-indulgence of her husband James III. Along with Blythe Duff, star of long-running UK cop show “Taggart,” she is part of a forceful female presence across the trilogy, which is punchily acted throughout.
Performed on an imposing set (by Jon Bausor) that’s part bear pit and part castle ramparts, with audience members sitting on the stage to create the in-the-round feeling of public spectacle, all three parts are magnificently lit by Philip Gladwell. Helmer Laurie Sansom, making his debut as NTS artistic director, employs the space dynamically, using the full height and width of the set to create a sense of the epic scale of the narrative. If he fails to find coherence in the fragmented and ill-defined second play, he brings tremendous storytelling energy to the magnificent first and third installments, fully justifying the scale and ambition of the project.