Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Matthew Pidgeon and Malin Crpin in James III: The True Mirror.

Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

3.5 out of 4 stars

The James Plays
Written by
Rona Munro
Directed by
Laurie Sansom
Steven Miller, Andrew Still, Malin Crépin
National Theatre of Scotland
Luminato Festival

Three history plays, three Scottish kings (and queens) and a little over 11 hours in a decommissioned generating station in Toronto's Port Lands area. Here's what the first marathon run of the National Theatre of Scotland's The James Plays at the Luminato Festival felt like.

11:55 a.m.: After a beautiful half-hour bike ride on a sunny Saturday morning, I've arrived at the dusty, damp Hearn Generating Station. It's on a street called Unwin Avenue – a name that reminds me of the witches' line in Macbeth: "When the battle's lost and won …"

A few years ago, the National Theatre of Scotland got tired of playgoers knowing only that one bloody Scottish king – and only knowing him through the lens of an English playwright.

Story continues below advertisement

So it commissioned Rona Munro to pen three plays about three kings in 15th-century Scotland – James I, James II and James III – before the Union of Crowns of England, Ireland and Scotland in 1603. Now, this trilogy is having its North American premiere in a custom-built 1,200-seat theatre here in the Hearn.

1:15 p.m.: First intermission of the first James. James Stewart (Steven Miller), a prisoner of the English for 18 years, returns to Edinburgh to rule with his new English wife (Rosemary Boyle) – and is, understandably, viewed with some skepticism by the families who have controlled Scotland in his stead, particularly a violent branch of Stewarts headed by Murdac (the sympathetic John Stahl).

Henry V – the English one, whom you may know from a play by a guy named Shakespeare – had explained what it means to be a king to James: "You have to [expletive] women you don't know and execute your relatives." (Yes, these ain't your great-great-great-great-great-grandfather's history plays.)

But James – bookish, sensitive – wants to be different. The best scene so far involved James persuading the boisterous Scottish court to kneel before him – an excellent piece of writing, performed with the utmost persuasion by Miller, and all very smoothly directed by Laurie Sansom on a staircase that doubles as a drawbridge designed by Jon Bausor. I doubt the peace will last, however.

2:45 p.m.: First James play over and done. While the history of his reign was new to me, the general story was perhaps too familiar: A man tries to rule benevolently but ends up becoming the king he hates. Munro has written a very satisfying pastiche of a history play, with bigger roles than Shakespeare usually gave women – but I'm hoping that the next one moves on from the formula and tells us something more than that power corrupts in Scotland, too.

4:05 p.m.: James II about to begin. This is my third time visiting the Hearn, but it was still fascinating to explore during the break. I overheard another point of view, however: "This is like one of those places they imprisoned people during the G20."

5:30 p.m.: Intermission. We've shifted from men to boys: James II (Andrew Rothney) is raised in captivity like his father, though this time by a Scottish lord named Livingston (Stahl again, impressively transformed). Munro has definitely thrown away the formula – the first half of the first act is an extended nightmare sequence. Unfortunately, it ends up feeling like an overlong prologue – and I'm not loving Rothney and Andrew Still, playing his only friend Douglas, as oversized children; maybe in a production with less naturalistic casting, this would work better.

Story continues below advertisement

6:40 p.m.: James II ends – and we're on a two-hour dinner break. I didn't enjoy this one – watching men brutalizing boys, beating the sensitivity out of them, those boys growing up to be unstable and brutal themselves. I suppose the point is that, well, this is the real history of "great men." But it all got a little too Sturm und Drang, with Still acting an awful lot as Douglas had an extended breakdown. I'm not sold on why I need to see this cycle of violence and cruelty. Then again, I gave up on Game of Thrones – to which The James Plays have been compared – after the first season. If I weren't reviewing, I might skip here.

7:40 p.m.: Still in line for the buffet dinner. I'm beginning to agree with the G20 comment I overheard earlier. (A Luminato PR person tells me they're working out the kinks for future marathon runs.)

8.30 p.m.: James III is about to begin. I'm fed, happily – and I've bought a glass of wine for this one. Hey, I'm in overtime here.

9:42 p.m.: I'm back on board with Munro's history plays. James III is gentler in tone, funny and even has a bit of dancing (to a Scottish bagpipe-and-accordion rendition of Lady Gaga's Born This Way, in one instance).

Our third James (Matthew Pidgeon, previously a sadistic Henry V) is here a bisexual hedonist who couldn't care less about affairs of state – he wants to build a cathedral, go on pilgrimages and be followed around by a choir. But the play is more about Margaret, his Danish wife (Swedish actress Malin Crépin, the only actor here playing a single role) trying to hold the family and the country together.

11:15 p.m.: Well, James III really tied the series together – with Crépin the first to make me cry, with joy, when Margaret sees a mirror for the first time. The playwright is as interested in technological history – drainage systems and colour dyes – as she is in that of kings.

Story continues below advertisement

Munro's plays also ended up being as much about a series of immigrant women – English, French and Danish – contributing to Scotland's sense of itself. There's a recurring theme of men afraid of losing the love of wives to their children.

The James Plays have dispelled some of the stereotypes I had about the Scottish people – that they're good with money and drink scotch, for instance. Here it's only the women from abroad who seem able to keep the books – and everyone, everyone in power anyway, drinks wine. Even the guy named Balvenie.

Would I recommend any of the plays individually? I'd say go in or skip the whole series – there's great value in the accumulation of details.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies