Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Review: The James Plays

I spent eleven hours in the theatre on Saturday.


It was bliss.

But why, I hear you ask? Surely you have better things to do with you life! Well a) no, I really don't and b) it's not every day you get to see three sequential history plays in order on the same day, especially when those plays are the critically lauded James Plays at my beloved National Theatre.

The James Plays, the first ever collaboration between the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre (of everywhere else), premièred to rave reviews at the Edinburgh Festival. They tell the story of the first three Stewart Kings of Scotland and, more fundamentally, of the formation of Scotland as the country we recognise today.

The NT is showing the plays individually in rep and also held a limited number of trilogy days, the last one of which is where I found myself on Saturday. As an aside, I loved the experience of seeing al three plays on the same day (as I did seeing Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies on the same day a few months ago) and highly recommend this sort of thing if you ever get to do it. But I digress. Here's some brief (as I could make them) thoughts on all three plays.

(Spoiler: I loved them.)

James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock
Poor old James I had a bit of a rough start in life. Specifically, he was captured by those pesky English at age 13 and held prisoner for 18 years, including a long spell as prisoner of Henry V (whose brief cameos in this play are significantly less flattering than other accounts of his life). James is restored to his throne by Henry as a ploy to stop the wayward Scots from fighting with the French against Henry's army and tasked with repaying Henry's 'kindness' with a hefty ransom to be paid in Scottish gold. He's also married to an English bride, Henry's cousin Joan Beaufort, to further secure his loyalty. Mistrusted by Scottish nobles who don't know or especially care who their young King is, James makes it his mission to deliver peace to Scotland and enforce the law of the land, even against the noble families who have seen their power grow exponentially in his absence. Suffice to say said nobles are not universally behind his plans...

It's a cracking, busy story which I found the most compelling of the three, narratively speaking. It's also unexpectedly funny, almost a comedy of manners, as James struggles to fit in with both his English Queen and his Scottish subjects. The scenes with Joan are some of the most enjoyable, especially their fantastically awkward marriage scene which contains some of the most delicious extended silences I've seen on the London stage. The production beautifully evokes a Scottish medievalness (clearly not a word) too, all wild Celts, chanting, booze and complaints about the weather. It's certainly the play of the three that felt the most Scottish to this outsider.

Performance-wise, it's top notch. James McArdle is hard not to warm to as a strong, stoic and principled King James. His performance does take some adjusting to - his stumbling over words and taking long pauses mid-sentence initially came across to me as someone struggling to remember their lines - but ultimately he gives James a nervousness and a sense of outsiderness which makes him a more believable character. He is also phenomenally good looking. Shallow, but true.

The strongest acting of the trilogy comes from Blythe Duff and Gordon Kennedy. They play several parts each across the three plays but are introduced in James I as Isabella and Murdac Stewart, the chief rivals to James' throne. Kennedy's Murdac is an unsentimental pragmatist whilst Duff's Isabella is a dangerous she-wolf. They're a fantastic couple and their performances provide much of the comedy and much of the sense of danger throughout the play. Credit also to Peter Forbes' Balvenie, a nervous minor noble in this play who is loyal to James as long as he can help elevate his status, intelligently played in James I as a real, desperate nonentity.

It's a great start to the trilogy and sets the ground nicely for...

James II: Day of the Innocents
We next pick up the story after James I has been assassinated, with his son and heir James II suffering terrible nightmares about his childhood. Abandoned by Queen Joan as a boy, he is 'cared for' by the warring whims of noble families desperately vying to control him and his throne. Amidst this chaos and danger he makes one friend, William Douglas (Balvenie's son and heir), and the two dream of the day they can rule Scotland together. As they grow up, this picture becomes more complicated and James and his demons must fight to hold on to his crown.

This play is an entirely different kettle of fish. It's use of nightmare sequences, puppetry and, for want of a better word, spooky lighting gives an altogether more otherworldly atmosphere. It's notably more serious and with a much smaller plot. It feels less Scottish somehow and much darker, which I suppose is appropriate for a play which deals extensively with ideas of madness and what affect it can have. And, contrary to the generally accepted critical view that it's the weakest of the three, it was actually my favourite part of the trilogy, if I was forced to choose.

The acting is universally great again, as you'd expect given it's the same cast. Blythe Duff and Peter Forbes both return in the same roles they had in James I, although both characters are so changed that you could argue it's only the name that's the same. Duff's Isabella now has much more of a supernatural role, almost like one of the witches in Macbeth, telling the young King how evil his family is and how awful he's destined to be. Forbes' Balvenie is transformed into the great noble he wanted to be and, as a result, is a bit of a shit; violent to his son and awful to basically everyone else. (I kind of loved him.) Gordon Kennedy returns too, this tine as scheming chief noble Livingston whose control and manipulation of the child King ultimately quickens his downfall. Murdac is a more sympathetic character, but Kennedy is excellent again and does snakelike very well.

Andrew Rothney is a really sympathetic James II. Given the amount of this part that is spent in nightmare sequences and flashbacks, it would be easy for him to become a completely unbelievable character but Rothney manages to avoid this. I found the nightmare scenes amongst the most effective in the whole trilogy and this is in large part due to his utterly believable sense of terror. The final nightmare where - spoiler alert - he brutally murders longtime friend William Douglas is genuinely quite scary, but also very touching. Mark Rowley is an excellent Douglas too; by degrees sweet and caring, funny and swaggering, arrogant and dangerous and carrying all off with a lightness of touch which makes his development and ultimate downfall thrilling to watch.

Ok, keeping up? Good. Onwards...

James III: The True Mirror
Generally agreed by critics to be the highlight of the trilogy, James III is actually more concerned with the women of the Stewart court. It follows our third James - a camp, charismatic, cultured non-conformist intent on spending money that his nation can ill afford and shagging anything with a pulse - and his intelligent, politic and loyal Queen, Margaret of Denmark, as she attempts to hold his country together.

As my flippancy there may suggest, I don't agree with the critics that this is the best of the trilogy. In fact I found it the most tedious. This is not to say it's a bad play in any way, shape or form (it isn't) but it is the most overtly political and the one that seeks to tap into the pre-referendum introspection in Scotland the most. In a post-referendum world (remember those three weeks where we all cared about the referendum?) it's a less interesting, less insightful prospect and in places I found the lack of subtlety - 'hey, this could still apply today!!!!!' - irritating at times. This wasn't helped by the sudden and jarring leap to the cast being in modern dress after two plays in period costume.

I also found James III by some distance the least sympathetic James. He is essentially just unpleasant; a sort of Gilderoy-Lockhart-meets-Mercutio-in-Baz-Luhrman's-Romeo-and-Juliet preening peacock with very few redeeming features. It's not that the acting was bad, it really wasn't, but the character is just an arse. It was frankly a relief when - spoiler alert again - he was stabbed to death by his much maligned son James IV.

The person who's generated the most buzz and comment around this play is Sofie Grabol, of The Killing fame, who plays Margaret. And credit where credit's due she is magnificent, an instantly likeable and kick ass foil to her husband who gets most of the best written dialogue in the trilogy. She is an arch bitch - the way she destroys one of James' more inconvenient mistresses by simply pointing out that she's not as pretty as he says she is is just perfection - but also a fantastic, principled and funny leader. It's a great performance which really lifts the play. Blythe Duff and Gordon Kennedy return for a third run, as a funny and wise court aunt and an ambitious courtier/potential lover for Margaret respectively - and are excellent again, as are the rest of this ensemble cast who really must've earned their money on three show days!

Special mention also to the music used in this play. If you feel like a folksy version of Don't You Want Me Baby and/or Born This Way is something you'd enjoy - and it damn well should be - then go and check out James III and make sure you're in your seats in good time for both acts.

Overall, the James Plays are just brilliant. Any one of them taken on its own is a fantastic work of drama but taken together they're a thrilling, fascinating thing. There are just a couple of shows left now - and only of II and III - but if you can get your hands on a last minute ticket you definitely, definitely should.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Book Review: Mary Boleyn - Alison Weir

If I say the name Mary Boleyn to you, what instantly comes to mind?

I'll give you a minute.

If anything, I'm guessing you got as far as Anne Boleyn's sister? Henry VIII's mistress? Francois I's mistress? Well done, because that's about as much as anyone knows about her.

She's also a really interesting and sympathetic character in Wolf Hall which is why I decided I wanted to devote my precious free time to reading a whole book about her. Plus I really enjoyed Alison Weir's Six Wives of Henry VIII (featuring, of course, a Mary Boleyn cameo). An Alison Weir biography of Mary Boleyn seemed right up my street.

And it was, to a very large extent. Weir's book - Mary Boleyn: 'the Great and Infamous Whore' - is extremely compelling and immaculately researched. The writing is, as Weir's books always seem to be, some of the best in popular history; accessible, intensely readable and assuming only the most basic prior knowledge. Drawing on contemporary sources, and often discrediting later ones, the book paints a much fuller picture of 'the other Boleyn girl' than you'll get from any fictional account. She's not just Anne's sister or Henry's mistress, she's an interesting character in her own right who Weir clearly feels affection for.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the book is its comprehensive debunking of many of the accepted facts about Mary and her life. Did Francois I ever called Mary 'the great and infamous whore'? Nope, there's no credible evidence for that. Think her son, Henry Carey, was Henry VIII's bastard? Sorry, wrong again. Despite a lot of academics, contemporary and modern, suggesting that he was there's no credible evidence for that either. (Interestingly, Weir builds a very credible case that Mary's daughter, Catherine, is a much more credible potential Royal bastard.)

How about Mary herself, was she stupid and unimpressive? Well, she clearly had some questionable taste in men in her early years but the idea that she was the slack jawed yokel of the Boleyn clan is a gross oversimplification. And she was the last of the Boleyn siblings to die, happily married and in obscurity, so she can't have been that stupid now, can she?

The examination of contemporary sources to provide the evidence for all of this debunking is incredibly impressive, almost forensic. It's difficult to argue with any of Weir's conclusions without doing some serious research yourself. Who has time for that, really?

I suppose the only thing that spoiled my enjoyment of this book is that the contemporary sources on Mary are so few and as a result there are so many things that we will just never know about her. I'm no historian - this much is probably apparent - and I like my pop-history books to be able to give me some definitive facts. There are just so few of these about Mary Boleyn. After a while, I found the constant uncertainty frustrating. This isn't Weir's fault, clearly, but I just found it annoying that there's no way to prove all of her excellently constructed arguments right or wrong. I dropped history at AS level for a reason, I suppose.

Weir has written extensively on the Tudor period and, since I'm still going through my Tudor phase (though how long that will last since I've just picked up Hilary Mantel's French revolution set A Place of Greater Safety remains to be seen), I intend to read more. I'd certainly highly recommend Mary Boleyn to anyone interested in learning more about its much maligned subject, the Boleyn family generally and Henry VIII's court.