It’s been nearly two years since The James Plays made their considerable impression at the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival and today audiences have the opportunity to spend a dreary Saturday watching all three of Rona Munro’s heavyweight history plays back to back. I face eleven hours of theatrical mayhem and murder (I’m assuming) at the lovely Festival Theatre. But what effect will that have on my brain, let alone my posterior? Will I fall at the last hurdle or make it through to the end? This is the story of my marathon experience.
Today, I am a review athlete
It’s quite nerve-wracking and I think maybe I should be limbering up to this marathon, but how? By watching even more theatre? That would run the risk of plots and characters weaving into each other in a confused fur-ball, which is never pretty when regurgitated.
Outside the theatre, more dominance is given to Mary Poppins than to the three James plays but there are considerable crowds seething through the doors for the first performance, the middle aged seeking middles-ages drama.
I skip out feeling energised after the first play, having stretched and sought water during the interval.
I meet a friend for a sustaining bowl of noodle soup to sustain me through the next play. The hour passes quickly and I have talked about everything except the James I have just seen. I keep my thoughts tucked away like a secret mouse in my pocket which will die a bloody and horrible death (yup, that’s the middle-ages effect) if I let the secret out.
It feels strange to head back to the theatre. As my usual habit is to return home to write up the review at this point, I think of my desk and the welcome crackle of the fire. But no. Today, I am a review athlete, and unlike the chaotic dash between many short productions at the Fringe, today demands Olympic-level reviewing. How terribly fit. Am I up to it? From this point on I enter the unknown.
4pm: James II
The momentary crisis of confidence disappears as I stride back through the doors and make my way to my seat.
I am confused. He’s in a box, he’s out of the box. It’s dark. It’s nasty. Some people are funny for the wrong reasons. The baby voices are grating. I’m glad I’m not on the stage rakes. I am relieved when it ends. Andrew Rothney (James II) hurts his foot yet carries on regardless. He may have been relieved when it ended too.
The wholly violent nature of the times is an accepted thing. I am so overwhelmed by it that I want to do the same as the king onstage, seek solace in box and hide there until it’s all over.
Two thirds of the way through the marathon and I feel like I live here at the theatre. There is no outside. I am the ghost of CE Richards (Lafayette’s double who died in the fire at this beautiful theatre) drifting around the auditorium.
Isn’t there a metaphorical wall that distance runners hit about this time? I hit mine but push through it.
I am tired and wired after the half light of the last play and I seek redemption in a ginger beer but find it in the sign which warns of nudity in the next play. After the homoerotic wrestling in the play before, it feels exciting to be going a little further.
8.15pm: James III
The crowd has changed again for the evening. The Calcutta Cup is lost at Murrayfield and someone says they saw a man watching on his tablet device during the play. I wonder how many people are here for all three plays, fellow marathoners?
But the audience’s marathon is nowhere near as impressive as the cast and crew’s and I am humbled by that thought. Kudos to actor Rothney though, as the director comes onstage before James III to let us know he’s been taken to hospital with his injury. What a trooper.
But now, I fear, the fourth wall has been crossed and it spoils the opening of the next play. As much as I have sympathy with Rothney’s plight, I don’t want to know that he is a real person and not a king of super-hero proportions. Rothney’s part in James III, that of saucy architect Cochrane, is played by another cast member reading from a script, which, again, spoils it a little.
I’m a bit worried when they start playing football again, but no injuries this time thankfully. This play is more comedic all round, yet deeper than the last. I can’t fault the idea that we should have a choir constantly in attendance to sooth any harsh situation, as the king in this play insists.
In the break, I find the press room. It’s been a long day, not over yet, but a glass of wine will help. Maybe it was all that talk of wine tasting in the first half. The whole balcony could have done with a hot toddy during the break; there’s so much coughing and sneezing I fear the plague has broken out.
I make my way home with my head full of James’s (particularly the naked one) and give silent thanks to the smart press department who furnished us with the scripts for reference.
It feels like I haven’t been home in ages, the flat is quiet and devoid of children. My bed is a welcoming space and I fall asleep before I can even think about it.
The following day: Post-James Bliss
I have to push myself to stretch out and limber down by writing up the three reviews, when all I want to do is eat, sleep and watch some fluffy rom-com. It is a struggle and there are unexpected and unwelcome disturbances but the reviews are finally written. And re-written. My head no longer needs to contain three complete plays and I let it go with gratitude, for it is, after all, someone else’s work.
My body aches but it feels satisfyingly good. It was a marathon. I doubt very much I will be called upon to do something similar again, but I made it.
Where’s my medal?
The James Plays are on national and international tour. More information from the National Theatre of Scotland: https://www.