Festival’s epic ‘game of thrones’

Oct 02, 2015, updated Jan 19, 2016
A scene from James II: Day of the Innocents. Photo: Manuel Harlan

A scene from James II: Day of the Innocents. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Scottish medieval history will be brought to life at the 2016 Adelaide Festival in a theatrical “game of thrones” full of epic battles and blazing power struggles.

Recounting the story of three Stewart kings who ruled Scotland during the turbulent 15th century, The James Plays is a trilogy of works that can be watched individually or together in an 11-hour marathon.

Director Laurie Sansom says the National Theatre of Scotland and National Theatre of Great Britain co-production will find fans among audiences who might usually shy away from Shakespearean or historical drama.

“They are written in very contemporary language,” he tells InDaily of the plays, the theatre highlight of the 2016 Adelaide Festival program announced today.

“We’ve also stripped back all the preconceptions to show they were just like us. They had the same feelings, the same emotions; they spoke just as directly to each other as we do.

“Many period pieces are more about how Victorians imagined life back then. They have a formalism to them which doesn’t correlate to the reality of living in a medieval castle.”

The James Plays had a timely premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2014, the same year as the Scottish independence referendum. The reviews were glowing, with one critic describing the trilogy as a “high stakes political thriller that never lets up”, while another said it was “a feast of theatrical might and blistering emotion”.

The trilogy is performed by a 20-strong cast, with seating on the stage putting around 100 audience members in the middle of the action.

All three plays – James 1: The Key Will Keep the Lock, James II: Day of the Innocents and James III: The True Mirror – were written by Rona Munro, whose credits include the film Oranges and Sunshine.

Although Munro has used her imagination to fill in the how and why of certain events, as far as possible the trilogy is historically accurate.

“As a Scottish writer, I was aware that we had no equivalent to the history cycles that Shakespeare created for English history,” she told The Guardian newspaper in London.

“In Scotland, we know certain historical events, but others are a complete mystery to us. And I thought that whatever happens, it would be nice to have a broader audience knowing about their own history.”

Sansom says the tumultuous events of 1421 to 1488 – when Scotland was forging a sense of national identity amid power struggles for the throne and a fraught relationship with England – are pegs for human stories with themes such as unrequited love and fraternal jealousy.

James 1, which tells of the first Stewart king who returns home with a ransom on his head and an English bride after 18 years in an English prison, features big battle scenes and a “satisfyingly tragic arc”.


James I. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The fast-moving, highly theatrical James II is more like a pan’s labyrinth. James II was crowned King of Scots at just eight years old and the story plays out as a nightmare through the eyes of a child whom the country’s most powerful families are fighting to control.

One of the most brutal scenes in the play involves the execution of the Earl of Douglas following a feast at Edinburgh Castle, which also inspired the infamous “red wedding” in TV’s Game of Thrones.

“It’s one of the most extraordinary and colourful events in James II and it looks like something out of Game of Thrones but in fact it’s something that actually happened,” Sansom says.

The mood changes again in the third play. With the charming James III more interested in clothes than ruling the country, attention turns to the women of the royal court, including his resourceful wife Queen Margaret of Denmark.

Beginning with Scottish traditional dancing accompanied by pop music, James III is “a bit like a romantic comedy”, taking takes cues from the film All About Eve.

Sansom recommends that audience members attend all three plays if they can.

“If you come and watch the whole trilogy, it takes you through a kind of journey. You start in this medieval world of dancing and battles and feasting, and move to this much more contemporary world by the end.

“The audience becomes a big community watching all three plays – it’s a shared experience.”

The James Plays will be presented at the Festival Theatre from February 26 until March 1, 2016, as part of the Adelaide Festival. The full Festival program is online from today.

Click here for InDaily’s story on the full 2016 Adelaide Festival program


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