James III: The True Mirror

If we’re to believe Rona Munro, the third James Stewart to rule Scotland was the country’s answer to England’s Edward II; a monarch who, while undoubtedly a man of culture and learning, lacked any political sense and too often let his passions rule his head when it came to the men and women who received his grace, favour and loins.

Stylistically, this production has quite a different feel to the previous two, not least by having the cast on stage dancing and partying as the audience comes in. In terms of costume and set dressing, there’s also an even more timeless presentation, crystallised when the ‘traditional’ musicians on stage deliver a foot-stamping take on one of the Human League’s biggest hits.

This royal man-child certainly has great charisma; Jamie Sives’portrayal is part Dougray Scott, part Robert Downey Jr. Yet the unconscious egotism which can be cute in a toddler pales when embodied in a muscular, tattooed ruler of a nation. Especially when he becomes more concerned with having a choir and orchestra follow him around - so he has an uplifting soundtrack, whatever the situation - than ensuring his people have enough food to get through the winter.

Arguably, the only people to fully understand James are his wife, Margaret of Denmark (played here with a genuine nobility by Sofie Gråbøl) and his aunt Annabella (a role which gives Blythe Duff a rare opportunity to flex her comedic acting muscles, albeit leadened by memories of past strifes). They both love James without necessarily liking him—unlike Daisy, the naive young laundress who becomes the King’s mistress and clearly believes that he’s besotted with her beauty.

Munro deliberately presents Queen Margaret as the exact opposite of her husband; restrained, realistic and concerned with the duties of state. Nor is she a doormat; her husband’s mistreatment of their eldest son, the future James IV, leads to an official separation, with Margaret establishing a court in Stirling Castle while James remains in Edinburgh.

The core of the play is when, after several years, James gifts Margaret a costly, but (for the time) high quality Venetian mirror. She genuinely likes the woman she sees in the glass; he sees a man who doesn’t match the idea in his head. She is comfortable in her own skin, discarding the baubles of jewellery as unnecessary ostentation; he falls deeper into self-loathing and paranoia.

And it is, through the perspective of this supposed outsider, that Munro gives voice to many sentiments which have come to dominate the independence referendum. “You’ve got fuck all except attitude,” Margaret says at one point to the assembled Scottish nobility, when her initial offer to sit on the throne in lieu of her husband is rejected. Following a stirring, romantic speech, however, she turns them round: “There’s no sense of being frightened of what you don’t know. It’s time to walk out in the world again and find out,” she adds, to roars of approval as the new Queen in Parliament.

Stylistically, this production has quite a different feel to the previous two, not least by having the cast on stage dancing and partying as the audience comes in. In terms of costume and set dressing, there’s also an even more timeless presentation, crystallised when the ‘traditional’ musicians on stage deliver a foot-stamping take on one of the Human League’s biggest hits.

This is a play very much about choices, and both the highs and lows that come from having the self-belief to make the difficult decisions that need to be made in the hope of a better future - and the need to accept the responsibilities that come with them. Timely for all of us on these islands, not just in Scotland.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

Multiple Venues

Nests

★★★
Dundee Rep Theatre / Macrobert Arts Centre

The Yellow on the Broom

★★★
Underbelly, Bristo Square

Tom Neenan: It's Always Infinity

★★★★
Assembly George Square Studios

Police Cops in Space

★★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Rik Carranza: Still a Fan

★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Marmite

★★★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

Like James III himself, the final instalment of Rona Munro's extraordinary trilogy is colourful, brash and unpredictable. It turns its eye on the women of the royal court, both lowly and high-born, who prove to be its beating heart.

Irresistible, charismatic, a man of fashion and culture, James III is a man with big dreams... and no budget to realise any of them. But he's convinced a true king should never allow such minor details to deprive his people of the magnificent European-style court they deserve.

Obsessed with grandiose schemes that his nation can ill afford, James is loved and loathed in dangerously unstable proportions. But Scotland's future will be decided by the woman who loves him best of all, his resourceful and resilient wife, Queen Margaret of Denmark.

As the nation thunders dangerously close to regicide and civil war, her true love and clear vision offer the only protection that can save a fragile monarchy and rescue a struggling people. But the cost for Margaret herself may be too high...