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Hi there,

As summer creeps onward, this particular season was marked by a interesting and unprecedented excursion for myself; something I had been aware of for a while, though had never actually sampled. That changed this year as, after an interesting and fortuitous newspaper article, I ventured out to the annual Edinburgh Festival - known more popularly as "The Fringe", and a much celebrated cornucopia of arts from Scotland, the UK and internationally too.

This occasion had a singular focus for myself, however, in that I got the chance to experience the remarkable event that is the new trilogy of dramas by playwright Rona Munro…  and directed by Laurie Sansom…
 in a collaboration between the National Theatre of Scotland, Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre of Great Britain

This summer, we have the new trilogy of historical dramas known collectively as The James Plays…

The trailer for this trilogy can be found below, as hosted on the National Theater channel…

In this, we examine in a remarkable and unprecedented effort, the lives of three kings of the high middle ages; early monarchs of the Stewart dynasty who have their roots in Scotland. Marked by great vicissitudes, Scotland of the 15th century is mirrored in the lives of these three generations of monarchs who sat on the Scottish throne, and the legacies that resulted from each successive ruler.

Over the course of two days, I saw all three new plays, and I proffer a few summaries beneath, for all three works that constitute "The James Plays" trilogy: The Key will keep the LockDay of the Innocents, and The True Mirror - each corresponding to the rule of James IJames II and James III respectively.

The Key will keep the Lock

Prince James Stewart returns, after 18 years, to a Scotland in decline as civil order is tenuous, government fragmented and control fickle as his relatives, the Stewart's of Albany, have willfully neglected their charges as governors of Scotland. Faced with the singular task of establishing his kingship in the face of disdain, raising a family and proffering a renewed vision of Scotland, James's task could not be more demanding... or could it?

              James Stewart I (1494-1437) 

His new ideas and pressing concerns alarming his cousins in the proud but shallow Albany Stewart's, there is soon conflict as court tensions rise to armed combat; a further test for the new king as James struggles to reconcile his central and progressive vision with the insular, broken place that his rebellious relatives and their supporters seem determined to keep.

The question - or perhaps the assertion - that "the key will keep the lock" can be answered for the audience, and maybe for James himself, in the play of the same name.

Day of the Innocents

Following his royal father's assassination in 1437, James II has been the subject of a strange, unsavory and abusive upbringing amid the blood and intrigue of the royal court - brutal aristocrats, scheming and bloody ambitions having traumatized him to the extent that his dreams are lurid nightmares, and his days haunted. Age brings some manner of confidence though as the young king finds solidarity and solace in one William Douglas, son of the grasping Earl of Douglas, and perhaps his only friend. But, as age brings responsibility and ambition, will these ties continue to bind?...


            James Stewart II (1430-1460)

As the king asserts his dominance in the arrest of his "counselor" Lord Livingstone, he begins to find a more natural egress as both man and ruler as the past seems to haunt him less. Unfortunately, as James finds his voice, so too does William find both his voice and ambition as he inherits his late father's estates, becoming the new Earl of Douglas. The Earls of Douglas a power in Scotland since the days of Bruce, his father's ambitions have allowed them to crest a new plateau of power - so auspicious that their's is second only to the Stewart kings, and among some even that is debatable. As James strives to put his past behind him and assert a stable kingship, William is pugnaciously confident that he and his are beyond the king and any responsibility they are charged with. A foolish opinion that will lead to disaster for William and a challenge to James, one night in Stirling Castle.

The True Mirror

The troubles that so haunted the monarchs of Scotland have in a great many ways passed as James III has taken the throne; this artistic, eccentric and temperamental monarch more styled towards the growing renaissance than the high middle ages, though it remains that trouble will abound still. The concerted challenges to the Stewart kings having diminished as the Albany Stewart's are no longer, and the Douglas Earls driven into exile, the third James is little concerned with the process of parliament or the nuanced demands on his time that ruling a difficult Scotland so often bring. But bring they do - economic and social problems are agitating the aristocracy and as James's rule grows ever more unpredictable, even his family is fractured under him. Though, as his ambitions fly, others contend to work either with or around the king. 

           James Stewart III (1451-1488)

As James's kingship thunders on, Queen Margaret works both within herself and with others to try and promote a semblance of consensus; finding new strengths and self knowledge as she struggles to keep her family together, and sustain a dialogue with the aristocracy, which grows ever more subversive, to keep Scotland ticking over. If Margaret's confidence is tense but firm, James's disdain grows more pronounced as the politics of his realm finally prompts his wife to press for a reconciliation. This seems to promise much but, as James will reveal in the fashion of a rock star, he feels obliged to no one: not parliament, his lords or his wife. 

This final act prompts her to incredible, singular acts of intellectual and emotive brilliance to keep the kingdom from civil war and presses those watching to consider the nature of self-identity in Scotland. Though exceptional in both compassion and intellect, Margaret's will passes as she becomes a victim of the plague; her death marking the end of a respite and the dawn of civil war which will see James III perish. But, as events close, we find a new hope in the rising of the much dismissed, despondent prince to the throne as James IV - a king though who was raised in an uncertain world would prove to be one of the most remarkable of renaissance leaders, and who would give much in what Scotland becomes today. 


Meeting with mostly rich and justified acclaim, this new historical cycle is an unprecedented project for the arts and does much to challenge the somewhat decayed notion that Shakespeare is the preeminent dramatic authority when it comes to historical dramas in Britain. Though far from perfect - the second play with James the II being more experimental and eclectic than some have taste for - the trilogy is a resounding success for the festival and for the Scottish cultural institution that pressed for it. 

The vicissitudes of these men's lives reflected in the legacies that were engendered for Scotland, this period of time is somewhat overshadowed in the Scottish imagination and it presented a great challenge to reckon with; a task which as wrestled with vigorously and with great success too. More than just abstract historical personages, the plays cultural, psychological and political sub-texts are rich with questions for the self and the wider world; a factor very much critical and pertinent too. 

In all, though these plays have their detractors and weaknesses, it remains that these works - selectively alone or as the dramatic cycle they were envisioned as - are vivid, energetic and stimulating texts which will find resonance with many; a sentiment not unfounded as they have already found widespread applause with audiences and critics alike. It is with that that I would like to wholly and firmly recommend "The James Plays" to any and all in search of a compelling, provocative and singular experience on stage, this year and hopefully in ones to come too.

Thanks again,




United Kingdom
Favourite genre of music: Classical
Favourite style of art: Art Nouveau

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