Tuesday, 19 August 2014
Munro and Gråbøl: the conquest of fear
It wouldn't really be right to try to sell Rona Munro's wonderful trilogy The James Plays with the above publicity image (one of two from James McMillian) of James III's Danish wife Margaret. People would say that the Edinburgh Festival was cashing in on Sofie Gråbøl*, best known in the UK - until these past few weeks - as complicated detective Sarah Lund in surprise telly hit The Killing, but already a classical actress of note in Copenhagen, and now we know why; she's absolutely charming but also a tower of strength. The three Jameses of the new production shared between the National Theatres of Scotland and Great Britain - James McArdle, Andrew Rothney and Jamie Sives (possibly the least nuanced of the three) - are all sexy and charismatic, but they don't tell the whole story either, even if they have to be on the main poster.
No, the real dynamic that drives the dynastic drama, as one might expect from Munro, comes from the women, and that's why the second part of my heading would, I fancy, be a suitable subtitle: they symbolise, though not in any abstract way, the shift from fear driving policy to confidence offering more democratic possibilities. Am I over-intellectualising in seeing a parallel between The James Plays and Aeschylus's Oresteia, in a kind of shift from primitive blood-grudge to a more enlightened society, however precarious - a developing drama in which the Furies become the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones?
There's another key actress who fulfils that specific function, the equally fine Blythe Duff, pictured above in one of Eoin Carey's rehearsal pictures. Duff's Isabella Stewart, wife of regent Murdac and presumptive queen until James I returns from prison to claim his birthright, is an unscrupulous, if sharp and amusing, powermonger, doomed to become a vengeful wraith in chains bewailing the murder of her husband and her three sons.
Isabella makes her exit half way through the second play, having wrought her spell on the young James II, and in the third Duff metamorphoses into an older version of that king's wistful sister Annabella. So the actress plays her part in the trajectory whereby the first queen, English Joan, uses her fear to force the first James, who loves her but isn't loved in return, to a bloody oathbreaking, while the second, French Mary of Guelders, seems fearless until an event that would shock anyone shatters her incorruptibility (the same actress - Stephanie Hyam, a little underpowered - plays both roles and is pictured below as Joan with McArdle's James I in one of Manuel Harlan's production photographs).
These first two queens have others of their sex to back them up - the vivacious, devoted Meg (Sarah Higgins, strong and likeable) and, in Mary's case, young Annabella (Rona Morison, another sympathetic performance). But it's only when Margaret appears upon the scene, hailing as she finally puts it 'from a rational nation with reasonable people', that a truly dominant trio can emerge, Gråbøl's Queen well offset by Duff's older, resigned Annabella and Morison now playing the part of 15 year old Phemy. The culminating speech sets the seal, balancing James I's showstopper in one of many symmetries both subtle and obvious. I have to quote some of the text, to give you a sample of Munro's basic style, which is to exchange Shakespearean blank verse for simple but not unpoetic prose, best when getting to the essence of things as here. Margaret has just spilled her jewels over the floor before the Scottish Parliament, her capricious and jealous estranged husband having walked out on the ministers.
I am your Queen and these are yours.
The comfort of community is warmer and softer than cold gold could ever be. I'm sorry that it's taken me nearly fifteen years to understand that, to understand how to be your Queen. I'm sorry I never told you any of this. I should have known that the only way to let you understand how much I care, was to tell you exactly what I think of you.
I've seen the worst of you, and you're murderous, miserable men. You've seen the worst of me, I've been a proud, overdressed, self-centred woman. But the best in you pulls me above that, and the best in you, with my help, can sustain this parliament and this nation.
So it takes an outsider to make us in the audience think, hey, a Yes vote might not be such a bad thing. That's the power of theatre and if the above looks plain on the page, believe me it's not when you've got someone like Gråbøl delivering it at the very zenith of the drama. It reminded me of Prime Minister Birgitte's tear-jerking turn-it-around speeches in Borgen, with a similar sense of absolute rightness and naturalness coming from the actress in question (there, the equally wonderful Sidse Babette Knudsen). Let's have a production shot of Gråbøl's Margaret seduced, as she so often is, by the most sensual of the Jameses as played by Jamie Sives, who also features as a not very clear-speaking Henry V of England at the start of the saga.
But if the last big speech is one radiant keynote - buying at least a few years' peace, as Annabella will tell us when the action fast-forwards beyond Margaret's death - there are darker climaxes, too. Folk have complained about James II being the weakest of the three plays. I don't think the opening nightmare of young James need be quite as messy as Laurie Sansom's very uneven direction makes it - and the music is just dreadful throughout - though I didn't mind his idea of a puppet to play the king's even younger self (pictured below, Andrew Rothney as the second James, complete with the birthmark he doesn't sport in the publicity. It did nothing to diminish his attractiveness in my eyes. NB: dry ice, always a bad sign in any production as far as I'm concerned).
But after the nightmares temporarily give way to reality, there is a series of great scenes. Almost unwatchable in the right sense is the one where Balvenie, now Earl of Douglas, has grown from a whiner who wants a plot of land into a territorial monster, bashing his son into repetition of the names of the estates which make up the land separating Scotland from England.
Very proud of Peter Forbes here (pictured above in rehearsal with Cameron Barnes as Big James Stewart), always the Actor Most Likely To when I was in the Edinburgh University Theatre Company (he was a superlative Malvolio and Herr Schultz in Cabaret, pictured in an earlier anniversary bout of nostalgia about 'the Bedlam'). Required to provide more light and shade, Mark Rowley as his son and the cousin who gives most succour to the young James rises to the most tense and finely-paced stretch in any of the dramas, the scene in which William baits the king who's set him at arm's length, with tragic results. I wept here, and Rothney certainly played his part in making the confrontation unbearably moving. The earlier homoerotics are beautifully suggested, too, and two goodlooking actors certainly help the frisson (below, Rothney and Rowley in rehearsal).
What else stands out? The unruly second act supper of James I (pictured below, Duff as Isabella seated left), the anything-goes football game in the December idyll of James II, the astonishing mirror scenes of James III (Margaret, confronted with herself: 'I like this woman! Look at her! She's ready for a laugh, isn't she? I'd love to get drinking with this woman! I really like the look of her. Is that really me?'), James III's capricious rejection of his son. And finally, making it all temporarily right and tying up the strands, the epilogue where Annabella decks out James IV-to-be in jewels of past significance.
Some have found the writing superficial, but I marvel at how Munro can say so much with so little - unspoken echoes, tactless reminders changing the mood - and how at the existential heart of it all lies the 'is that all there is?' of those characters - William, James III especially - who know there is a richer, lovelier, more adorned world beyond Scotland. Time for another final chunk: this is William telling the untravelled James II what he saw as Papal Envoy to Rome:
There's a house, not a rich man's house, a wine merchant's house, an ordinary shop man's house you ride past on your way into town.
It has paintings of angels on its walls that look like a window into the next world.
It has peacocks in the yard. I'm not joking. The wine merchant's kids are kicking peacocks' eggs around his garden in Rome.
With angels watching them.
And I come home and I'm supposed to feel like a rich man because I've got another hundred wet sheep?
What's the point? Tell me? What's the point of that?
And yet even the malcontents, like Margaret and us, love the best of Scotland. This is one to make film and television, and hopefully in a decade or less there will be a production truly worthy of the text. I'm glad and emotional to have seen it, though, over three festival nights, with time to think about it in the days between. Try for returns when it comes to London in a couple of weeks' time.
Coda: just finished watching a much longer epic, Breaking Bad. Hyperbole has been labelling it the best TV series ever. Well, there are superb performances, virtuoso camerawork and scenes of great truthfulness, but while the family tensions were always gripping, the premise on the gangster/violence front has never quite had me suspending my disbelief. They really seemed to be stringing it out in the last series: it could have ended two episodes earlier, with two vintage twists, but then I guess we wouldn't have got the poetics of the grand finale. Suffice it to say that while Skyler's breakdown moved me very much, I couldn't quite get involved with our Walter once he'd gone beyond the pale. An exceptional man who did great evil: who can ultimately can care for his redemption? Maybe you did; I didn't.
*Stop press: wonderful in-depth interview with great Gråbøl by Jasper Rees on The Arts Desk. What a wonderful woman, truthful and funny.