There are epic theatre productions and then there is The James Plays, a three–play, 11–hour extravaganza that is coming our way for the Adelaide Festival of Arts.
Lauded as “better than Shakespeare” by the UK’s Daily Telegraph, The James Plays chronicles three generations of Scotland’s Stewart kings: James I, James II and James III. Written by Rona Munro (Ladybird, Ladybird; Oranges and Sunshine) and directed by Laurie Sansom, the trilogy covers an era of Scottish history that has largely escaped the public consciousness until now. Sansom admits he knew little of the first three James kings when the English director decided to stage this as part of his first programmed season as the National Theatre of Scotland’s Artistic Director. “What is interesting about this period of history is that not many Scots know about it either,” he says. “And they’re all true, well as far as we can gather. It is not deeply written about, there’s literally one book about James I of Scotland – one. It’s the same for James II and James III, just one book by a particular scholar who’s been researching and going through the historical records.” The lack of recorded history is a major reason as to why Munro wanted to cover this thrilling period, as the stories of the Stewart kings contain more assassinations, betrayals, battles and coups than a season or two of Game of Thrones. “Records of what happened at the time are really sparse, so of course for a playwright that’s brilliant. If you’ve got the bare-bone facts of what happened – the alliances, who murdered who, who succeeded who and who stole what – then Rona’s able to do what a playwright does best and imagine how and why that happened and summarise – as best as her imagination allows – the human stories. “In Britain, Henry V and Henry IV, all those historical characters actually come through from the Shakespeare plays because there’s this pantheon of plays – it’s not really from the historical records – so Rona wanted to have a go at writing that kind of history for Scotland, to reclaim some of these stories. She remembered some of the stories about the 15th century kings. And when you get to James VI you get to the union of the crowns – because James VI became James I of England – so it seemed a good way to pedal backwards and go, how did that happen? How did we get there? First staged as part of the 2014 Edinburgh Festival, the original production coincided with the Scottish independence referendum. “We didn’t know people would respond,” says Sansom. “A lot of the play is about how you govern your country, how you want to rule, the relationship between Scotland and England – of course it’s a time when Scotland was completely independent – so we wanted a political context.” Sansom says the play doesn’t take a political stance in regards to Scotland’s independence. “Rona is not banging a particular political drum, she’s instead exploring the issues so people can go away and think about it. A lot of people who were pro-independent thought it was a pro-independence [play], a lot of people that were pro-unionist thought that is was pro-unionist… This is the mark of a good playwright.” Written in today’s language, Sansom says that the human stories don’t change as time goes by. “People felt emotions and operated in the same way and had the same complicated relationships with each other and power as they do now. So to make assumptions that people [from that time] are different from us is a mistake. The language is very modern and contemporary. I think people really respond to that. It’s gutsy storytelling.” In regards to the Telegraph’s five-star review, where critic Dominic Cavendish wrote that The James Plays “could be one of the finest history plays ever penned” and are “better than Shakespeare”, Sansom agrees, kind of. “I enjoy it more than I do reading or watching some of Shakespeare’s historical plays, I have to confess,” Sansom says. “Some of them really bore me. And these are really vibrant bits of contemporary storytelling. So, I kind of agree; this play is better than some of Shakespeare’s King plays, I wouldn’t say all of them. Rona gets really embarrassed about it. It’s a fun game isn’t it? Rona Munro vs William Shakespeare.” With bloody historical TV dramas such as Game of Thrones, The Last Kingdom and Vikings being so popular, The James Plays seems a perfect work to adapt as an epic television event. “ There’s been quite a lot of interest actually. At the moment we’re going, ‘Let’s get them out again theatrically. Let’s get them on the road’ because they are live theatre essentially. And then Rona can consider the other o ffers she’s got and we can think about what we might want do. There’s been interest.” Given that Munro originally was looking back from James VI when deciphering how to tackle The James Plays, is there a chance there will be a follow-up chronicling James IV to James VI? “I think conversations might have happened,” Sansom admits. “Right now, the thought of getting I, II and III back up is enough to give me sleepless nights. At the moment it’s about getting these monsters back up. We’ll see.” At the Adelaide Festival, the three James plays can be viewed in separate sittings or as a single-day event that, with three intervals and two meal breaks, will last 11 hours. Sansom says that during an epic sitting the audience becomes a community and that it’s an “extraordinary atmosphere”. The James Plays Festival eatre Friday, February 26 to Tuesday, March 1 adelaidefestival.com.au