Rona Munro is an award-winning Scottish writer for theatre, television and radio. Her trilogy of history plays, The James Plays, about King James I, II and III of Scotland are directed by Laurie Sansom and about to undertake a UK and international tour. Broadway Baby Features writer Carly Brown spoke with her about historical fiction, writing three plays at once and what she loves about live theatre.
You’ve got to tell big human stories, otherwise the plays won’t have any legs.
The James Plays are all set in the fifteenth century. What drew you to this period of Scottish history?
Well I did actually study History at university, but the period I always responded to the most was the Medieval. I think it’s partly because of the kind of books and stories I’d read in my teenage years. I was very into historical fiction. I loved those stories from the Middle Ages and earlier. I think because there was a lot of that swords and sorcery stuff. I loved those stories.
The other reason was because we know so much less in concrete terms about the period. The evidence from those centuries is really sparse and so there’s a lot more room for speculation. Of course, that’s a gift to a writer. You can fill that with story. So those two things really: that I loved that period and that it allows a lot more freedom as a writer.
The plays are in such dialogue with each other but they’re all so distinct. James III is more comedic and festive, while James II is darker, more surreal. Can you tell us about your writing process? Did you write them chronologically or were you working on them all simultaneously?
I was working on them all simultaneously and I wanted them all to be very different tonally for an audience. Once I’d found someone insane enough to attempt to do all three at the same time, along with a company of actors, I was thinking you don’t want the audience to be going: ‘Oh God, here we go again!’ You want to surprise them. You’ve seen the story this way, and now you’re going to see it with a different type of story telling. But in terms of the emotional story about that one family, it did all connect, so it made sense to be working on all three at once from a very early stage.
Another of the differences I noticed was that the costumes in James III were much more modernized. Why was that decision made? Was it directorial choice?
It was a mutual decision. We had a wonderful meeting earlier in this process with the set and costume designer, Jon Bausor, and the lighting designer, Philip Gladwell. We were all in the one room and I was talking through the differences, exactly as you’ve described them, between the stories and what I was hoping to achieve in terms of an audience experience of them. My reference point for play number three was brittle, witty 1940’s-1950’s comedies. Movies like those with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. A warring couple with this wonderful sparkly dialogue. I think the designer really responded to that, so that was the reason. It was also to signal to an audience that yes, this is then, but it’s also kind of now. To give them a sense that we’re telling you a story that’s historical but it’s also a contemporary story.
Seeing the plays was a very immersive experience, with some of the audience members sitting on stage and some of the actors delivering speeches direct to the audience. Why did you decide to involve the audience to such a degree?
I think both Laurie and I had the instinct that that’s what we wanted to do. Certainly for me, I love writing for theatre in the round and I think at some instinctive level I always do. I think it boils down to the fact that you can see other audience members. It creates a completely different feel. It’s a feeling that we’re now a community of people watching a story together. There’s something about the inclusivity of that that reminds the audience that they, too, are part of this process of storytelling and it’s their reactions that shape what the actors do on stage.
That’s part of what makes live theatre so exciting and I think there’s something about the democracy of that. You realize that if I sat there with a stony face, the rest of the audience knows I don’t like it and the actors know. If you’re laughing, you’re adding energy to it. You have that awareness that you, too, are a living part of this story. That’s what makes live theatre exciting.
Is that why you decided to write this story as a trilogy of history plays, rather than something for the screen or for another medium?
I think so, yes, and also you can imagine trying to float these as say a TV series. I think you’re talking four years of pitching and eight years of development. The scale of them would be so expensive. But it is also that these are such strong stories and I love theatre. I wouldn’t say it’s the medium I love the most, but if I had to choose, I think I would always pick theatre because of that very direct connection with an audience. So with these, the biggest stories of all, that was the place I wanted to put them.
I enjoyed that overall The James Plays didn’t tell audience members how to feel about these Kings, if we should condone or condemn their actions. Was that ambiguity important to you as you wrote the plays?
Yes. I think if you’re presenting any kind of agenda to an audience without letting them know beforehand that’s what you’re doing, then you’re not doing your job. My job is trying to present stories of universal human themes and human nature and character. Then, within that, people can make up their own minds. And everything will be informed by your own biases, of course. But I don’t want to be saying: ‘This is a good guy or a bad guy or woman.’ You’ve got to tell big human stories, otherwise the plays won’t have any legs.
They probably had a particular force under them because, when we first produced them, it was at the time of the Scottish Referendum and so there was an enormous interest in stories of Scotland’s past, when it had been an independent nation. But even then I knew that if these plays don’t work outside the context of the Referendum, they’re not good enough. You can’t have any agenda. You’ve got to allow people to witness character and human events that they recognize. Then, it’s about what they bring to it.
The James Plays are on national and international tour. More information from the National Theatre of Scotland: https://www.