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

Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

3.5 out of 4 stars

Title
The James Plays
Written by
Rona Munro
Genre
Play
Directed by
Laurie Sansom
Actors
Steven Miller, Andrew Still, Malin Crépin
Company
National Theatre of Scotland
Venue
Luminato Festival
City
Toronto
Year
2016

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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