James II: Day of The Innocents

We don’t see one of the most important events in the life of James II, just its immediate consequences; a hurried, chaotic, almost dream-like explosion of fear and movement following the assassination of his father, James I, and his capture by the new regime. Young James was barely six years old at the time, and by a circuitous route we learn that the subconscious memories of that night continue to haunt his dreams for years afterwards - as well they might. One sequence of actions is repeated almost word-for-word, suggesting not just his own reluctance to let go of the past but also how little appears to change in 15th century Scotland.

Inventive use of simple props - not least the variety of trunks which are put to numerous uses (including the often-relied upon hiding places for the young James II) - combined with simple lighting and driving soundscapes ensure that this production is a vibrant affair

Unlike its predecessor, which effectively focused on an inexperienced man claiming his birthright and learning the pragmatism of cruelty, James II: Day of the Innocents focuses much on this particular monarch’s minority, during which a somewhat bullied and abused child became the political puppet dragged into the ongoing struggles between the two families, the Livingstons and Crichtons. Importantly, director Laurie Sansom avoids the inherent limitations of casting a child actor by utilising - so obvious when you think of it - a puppet which is operated by various members of the cast including, on several occasions, Andrew Rothney who expertly plays both James’growing strengths and his remaining insecurities.

The narrative-driving imbalance at the heart of James II: Day of the Innocents does not, however, come from the feuding Scottish nobles, but rather James’childhood friend William Douglas, played energetically by Mark Rowley, who copes well with the growing egotism which ultimately leads to disaster. For, as the by-now old and mad Isabella Stewart (Blythe Duff) points out to him: “A King has no friends.”

Inventive use of simple props - not least the variety of trunks which are put to numerous uses (including the often-relied upon hiding places for the young James II) - combined with simple lighting and driving soundscapes ensure that this production is a vibrant affair, although the first half somewhat stands alone with its repeated cycles of nightmares and the changing details of the death of James I - the precise telling depending on whether it’s by a friend or foe of the late king. The most startling performance, though, is by Stephanie Hyam; here, for the most part, she plays James II’s young but brave French bride Mary. When we first see her, however, it takes real effort to even remember that she had been on stage less than 15 minutes earlier as James II’s psychologically lost mother.

As in the first play, we are once again told that “A good life is invisible unless you own the land you’re buried under”; this is still very much a world where a man’s worth is judged by martial achievement, possession of land and money, rather that personal qualities such as talent and character. It’s fair to say that the play shows, rather than tells, just how dry and dangerous that kind of thinking is; that it encourages a cycle of violence with terrible consequences - not least suspicion and a wish for revenge - which is no way to build a nation.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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The Blurb

In the second part of Rona Munro's thrilling trilogy, innocent games merge with murderous intent in a violent royal playground of shifting realities and paranoia.

Crowned King of Scots when only eight years old, James II is the prize in a vicious game between the country's most powerful families. Seen through a child's eyes, the Scottish court is a world of monsters with sharp teeth and long knives.

Growing up alone, abandoned by his mother and separated from his sisters, James II is little better than a puppet. There is only one relationship he can trust – his growing friendship with another lonely boy, William, the future Earl of Douglas.

But the independence and power of young adulthood brings James into an even more threatening world. He has to fight the warring nobles who still want to control him, he has to make brutal choices about the people he loves best, he has to struggle to keep his tenuous grip on the security of the crown and on his sanity... while the nightmares and monsters of his childhood rise up again with new and murderous intent.

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