There’s are plenty of laughs in this imaginary conversation between King James VI of Scotland – preparing in March 1603 to make his stately progress south from the Palace of Holyroodhouse to Westminster and the English throne – and a gawky servant boy called William. But – yes, there’s a “but” – it’s a shame that Tim Barrow relies too often on not just the highest in the land using the lowest vernacular, but also an increasingly clichéd self-image of Scotland as some proudly uncivilised and ungovernable-from-England nation. Whether self-mockery or self-congratulation, it’s really past its sell-by date.
Like any effective “historical” play, Neither God Nor Angel may be set in the 17th century, but it’s very much a contemporary piece – and not just because of the anachronistic carpet on the floor of Jonathan Scott’s simple but suggestive set.
Jimmy Chisholm does a great job humanising the self-centred man hiding behind the monarch’s at-times-literal posturing, alcoholism, and innate sense of entitlement – a man used to getting whatever he wants even though it appears he’s never genuinely happy with what he receives. Chisholm is matched well by Gavin Wright as the former servant with nothing-to-lose, who ends up becoming the king’s lone drinking companion on that long night before the monarch’s departure for London. While clearly written to gain our sympathies, Wright ensures that a figure “too sweet for regicide, too green for blackmail” becomes more than just a gawky commentator on the unfairness of life.
For every gratuitous example of “The final couplet is always a bitch”, Barrow’s script at least offers a more chilling reference to there being “ghosts here tonight, in your face”. And while few today surely fail to dismiss, as self-egotism, James’ insistence that he’s monarch “by Divine Right, not a whim of Westminster”, and that “King’s are born, not made”, we can surely still sympathise with a man who has feared assassins all his life, and is well aware of the personal price paid by whoever wears the crown.
Like any effective “historical” play, Neither God Nor Angel may be set in the 17th century, but it’s very much a contemporary piece – and not just because of the anachronistic carpet on the floor of Jonathan Scott’s simple but suggestive set. (Chris Reilly’s lighting design, incidentally, excellently suggests a dark night illuminated only by a fading fire.) James refers to the bankers that have apparently sucked England dry during the latter years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign as “devious bastards”. Discussing the planned union of his two kingdoms, James talks of finding “a Middle Way” to wealth and security. William, meantime, dismisses as “pish” his monarch’s “trickle down” theory of wealth redistribution from the richest to the poorest in society.
All of which resonate with our present where, of course, another Elizabeth has sat on the throne for a very long time. This James is no Charles, however; while, as a critique of power and responsibility, Neither God Nor Angel sadly lacks both the hard wit and depth of Liz Lochead's Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off – scarily, a work first performed some three decades ago.