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. 


Susan Scheid said...

Oh, my do I ever hope I get a chance to see these plays! The quotations you offer are tantalizing (while plain on the page, they're a powerful, direct plain, and I can only imagine how powerful to see and hear live). I certainly see the parallel to Birgitte/Sidse Babette Knudsen in Borgen. How glad we are you pointed us to that series! To your point on the James plays, "This is one to make film and television," I can only say, please, please, please.

David said...

I'm glad the quotations had that effect: though I'd had the advantage of seeing/hearing them in action before I read through the play text I bought with alacrity, I thought they would come across as 'a powerful, direct plain' too.

And amen to the next steps - I don't doubt that at least one will happen. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing how Wolf Hall works on TV. I wasn't especially anxious to see Mantel's novels as plays, though I know she was present in Stratford and had a huge effect (pinned them down to review in London, only to find the first night clashed with the Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier, and I couldn't miss that, could I?) Can't imagine Mark Rylance as Cromwell but then he is a great actor so the power of transformation and all that.

Catriona said...

Hi David - I agree about the music and the production. That style may well have been innovative back when 7:84 did The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil, but that was over forty years ago. My heart sank right at the beginning, when they ran on stage and did that stomping dance routine. And for all the colour that is mentioned in the plays and the big skies, it was awfy dull. We know that the Middle Ages were full of colour - it didn't suddenly arrive in the Renaissance, imported with a royal bride from Europe.
At the same time, I liked the staging - the echoes of ;Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis'. I could see it being performed in the Assembly Hall, as the Thrie Estaitis has been. (Note to EIF - it's a good few years since the last production.)
I felt that the puppet thing in 'James II' was messy and a distraction - it left Andrew Rothney standing around like a spare part for too much of the time.
Blythe Duff was a revelation and I was impressed by Gordon Kennedy. I agree that Balvenie was well-drawn - and well-acted by Peter Forbes; I liked his death-scene. Later, Daniel Cahill as James IV, wrapping himself in what looked like barbed wire, I found powerful.
However, as a Scot, I don't see much difference between Henry V telling us how to run the country and Margaret of Denmark.
Above all, I found the 'jokes' about the climate, the character, the food, wearisome. I agree with Joyce Macmillan that these are cliches 'that some hoped, a generation ago, never to see on Scottish stages again'.
Have you ever seen Robert Mclellan's 1937 play 'Jamie the Saxt', another Scots king who took a Danish wife and who had problems with unruly relatives - in his case, the Earl of Bothwell. There's a Michael Billington review of a 2007 production on the Guardian website. It would be interesting to be able to compare them.

Anonymous said...

David, my loyalty, even to fictional characters, often lasts long beyond being deserved. My initial compassion for Walter White, my sympathy for his early soft nature, unappreciated by so many around him, remained, while I sat (often fast forwarding) through so much horrifying behavior. I disliked Skylar from the start; were we meant to? There were reasons for persevering through the early episodes. We wanted our protagonist to succeed, to show up the non-believers. There was much for everyman to identify with. By the end of three seasons, even I couldn't find anything to like in Walter, nor feel curiosity about the details of how the story would end. I abandoned the show as too dark, to return for the highly recommended season four finale. Then, knowing that the series was ending, and being in a period of especially needing distraction, I watched season five. There's too much to be considered in judging a series as "best ever." At another time in my life, I wept during the final scene of Northern Exposure and missed the characters long afterwards. But I finished Breaking Bad's finale with the same relief I used to feel in school, when completing a book assignment I didn't like. Good writing and acting aren't enough to win me any more. Season three's character of the chemist Gale gave me hope, temporarily, that the story would take a new turn; that was when I looked for Walter's redemption. When it supposedly came at the series' end, I couldn't believe in it: he seemed, less to make a choice, than merely to do the only thing that was left. I'm glad to read your thoughts. The show was so celebrated here, it's reassuring to hear another view. -- Elizabeth

David said...

Interesting, Catriona. In a way there were quite a few cliches which came across as a sop to the audience, Stoppard-like, but then cliches have a fair amount of truth about them and Munro put them into the mouths of Scots trying to explain the basics to outsiders.

I wish the lighting had been more imaginative and, reading the text, I see that certain intended spaces weren't evoked at all. When 'windows' were opened, we just got the glare of lights and none of the atmosphere evoked in the words. They failed the beautiful week in December completely.

A lady checking in her bag at the cloakroom (where each night three or two or one charming guide-dog labradors were left) mentioned the Assembly Rooms. I felt a lot got lost in the Festival Theatre. The Olivier should work better - somehow everything projects there. But some of the actors were too quiet.

The puppet, of course, was a production stunt. The young(est) James is supposed to be played by a boy.

The point about Margaret, surely, was that she'd come to Scotland at such a young age - like Joan and Mary - that she did have a deep understanding of its workings. Anyway, to paraphrase the lady herself, I LIKED this woman.

I remember when Jamie the Saxt was staged in 2007 and friends praising it: wish I'd gone to see it.

There's a fun evocation of James VI/I of England in Howard Brenton's Anne Boleyn, which is actually more about James. He was played by James Garnon,a brilliant young actor with a real talent for vigorous comedy who seems to have got stuck at the Globe.

Elizabeth, yes, I think we were supposed to slightly bristle at Skylar's smugness (is that how you spell that toe-curling name?) to begin with, and then to shift between sympathy and repugnance (after all, she does egg Walter on to get rid of his sidekick). I could identify with the episode in the last series where she went into a deep depression, but then she came out of it with unrealistic speed. Her wavering then become increasingly implausible.

Too often these American series, however well made, stretch credibility too far (mind you, some of ours do too, but I went along with most of the twists in Spooks). I've eavesdropped on a few episodes of House of Cards, which J has been voraciously consuming in a summer week at home, and I just didn't buy the volte-faces of the 'good' characters. The President's capitulation towards the end made no sense at all. Again a pity, because the acting - as in Breaking Bad - was superb.

Catriona said...

Yes, David - I saw Anne Boleyn when it came north and enjoyed it. I felt it was a fairly sympathetic portrayal of James VI. I had to order the playscript, because the Festival Theatre ran out.
So we now have plays about all the Jameses, except James IV, to compete, or not, with Shakespeare's history plays, plus Sydney Goodsir Smith's The Wallace and Robert Silver's The Hert o Scotland, about the dying Bruce. What a drama season that would be!

Anonymous said...

I agree about Breaking Bad it started well and with good script but quickly became gimmicky and contrived. You really must see the HBO series TREME; I guarantee that you will not be disappointed. Brilliant writing, acting and great music.
John Graham

David Damant said...

David - you are aware that I object very strongly in principle to plays and films about real people and events, but one must have a statue of limitations and Scotland at the time of the three Jameses is beyond that timing, so OK and these plays look pretty tough and valuable stuff in themselves. But modern I think in their way of thinking

I often wonder on reading about that period in Scotland at what point the Stewarts became so hopeless. ( Mary Queen of Scots added the variant Stuart when she married the Dauphin, as the French found difficulty in pronouncing the original spelling.) From M Q o S to the Young Pretender they were incompetent in the role or pretended role of heads of government.

The reason why the vote on Scottish independence should say No ( even if desirable from a cultural point of view) - indeed why there should not have been a referendum at all - is that NO ONE understands macro-economics and the economic consequences of a split cannot be judged. It would be a leap in the dark. And which currency Scotland would use is not a secondary point As for those who judge the economic outcome of independence favourably, one can only refer to Freud - that if the emotions are involved the intellect comes to the conclusions that the emotions require.

Liam mansfield said...

Dear david,
Glory be not to the kings of Scotland but to you and your Alamata of Edinburgh .

Since Johnson, seldom have I read such perfect prose written ,not just by English gentleman but with added song of lilthe and lyre, the brachen and Sussex lawns .
What ever the result of the reverendum your writings shall unite the two kingdoms . Floret davidus.

Catriona said...

Mea culpa - I've found my copy of Robert Silver's play, and it's called 'The Bruce'. Apologies for misleading you all.

David said...

Apologies, all, for long delayed publication of comments. I've been away and the Google system is absurd in not only asking me for a long-defunct and forgotten phone number but not giving me any decent alternative route.

John, you recommended Treme a couple of years back; we watched and loved it. Almost enough to want to go to New Orleans. Coincidentally, if predictably, Breaking Bad has just walked off with a raft of awards. I'm amused by some of the spinoffs promised.

Lord Mansfield of Tralee, you are too, too kind. Yrs ae the Duc de Riviera.

Sir David - 'modern in their way of thinking', indeed. I think this is possibly the only way history dramas can be convincingly done now. The alternative is stiff archaisms which fail to bring the characters to comprehensible life. As for the persistence of the unforeseen in the referundum, aye, more ground should have been laid. People go on about the heart and the head - the dreary Kirsty Wark picked up on the cliche very soon, how I wish I'd not watched Newsnight down in the country, and praise be to lack of telly access. You I'm sure have come to that divergence of your own accord.

Catriona, I'm sure the vast majority will forgive you very easily.

wanderer said...

The dissolution (or whatever the correct terminology) of the UK would have significant constitutional consequences down here in our little outpost, those who understand these matters say.

As for Breaking Bad, it took three episodes and I was hooked, lined, and sinkered to the point of binge viewing. I have no problem with apparent hyperbole making its points, ramming the massage home, and all in all I found it quite the modern moral tale (as Vince Gilligan intended - he was an absolute sell-out here at the Sydney Writers Festival) and the ending ? My verdict? - brilliant with Walter 'what-happens-when-a-good-man-goes-bad-and-it-could-be-anyone-anytime' White overtaken by his own karma and yet his final gesture was goodness (to save the Q and A: he loved Jesse). For further reading, see David and the Greeks two posts on.

David said...

Curious to know, wanderer, in what precise ways it's thought Scotland's independence will affect Oz?

Re Breaking Bad, I don't buy the 'it could be anyone' stuff (partly because Walter White is such a compound of exceptional qualities that don't quite join up for me). It's great drama but doesn't ring entirely true. Fine if you accept the element of fantasy.

But this writ-larger quality is an element of the American TV series. We've now started binge-watching Orange is the New Black, the women's prison semicomedy. Started off so convincingly, but already elements of overegged sentimentality and crudity have crept in. Still, at least it's not anodyne.

wanderer said...

Re the possible not-anymore-UK, the constitutional issues are touched on here.