Review: The James Play Trilogy (Luminato)

JamesLuminato presents an epic saga of Scottish kings, The James Play Trilogy, in Toronto

Luminato scored an absolute coup when it landed the North American premiere (and sole North American engagement) of the much-lauded epic, The James Play Trilogy. Written by Scottish playwright Rona Munro and originally produced by the National Theatre of Scotland, the triad of history plays details the lives of the James kings who ruled Scotland throughout the turbulent era in the 15th century.

While it has drawn comparisons to Game of Thrones or even Hamilton, I think those claims are overselling it, or at least setting the wrong expectations.

The Jameses’ version of medieval Scotland has nowhere near as much sex or violence as Westeros. And while the plays are about historical figures and are written using accessible, modern English vernacular, there’s no stylistic resemblance to the game-changing phenomenon that is Hamilton.

That’s not to say that this play cycle isn’t a monumental theatrical achievement in its own right. It’s truly epic and incredibly ambitious in scope and scale.

The complete trilogy spans nearly a century of Scottish history and clocks in with a run time close to seven hours (plus intermissions). It is performed in a striking 1,200-seat custom-built theatre, a makeshift marvel of shipping containers and scaffolding, inside Luminato’s hub at the Hearn Generating Station.

But don’t go in expecting Braveheart, epic battle scenes or a lot of dazzling stagecraft. The staging is relatively spare, employing a unit set and incorporating the type of onstage seating that was in vogue with theatre productions about ten years ago to fill out the backdrop.

Instead, at their core, each of the plays is a complex character study delving deeply into the psyches of the titular kings, exploring their personal relationships and highlighting their struggles. Munro’s greatest strength as a writer is to take these historical footnotes and re-create them into vivid, layered and fascinating characters.

James I is a portrait of gentle soul, a poet with a strong bent for justice who rules in the face of backstabbing political plots by his kinsmen. The piece relies on the ability of the actor to create a compelling, sympathetic character and Steven Miller succeeds in spades. When King James eventually makes a surprise decision that would come off as ruthless in a history book, I found that I empathized so much with his character that his actions were completely justified to me.

James II centres on the relationship between King James II (Andrew Rothney) and his childhood friend William Douglas (Andrew Still). The first half of the play takes place during James’ childhood and I love how Munro and director Laurie Sansom create a larger-than-life nightmarish fantasy setting as a reflection of how the young king sees his world. Kudos also to Rothney for a compelling performance as both the 9-year-old and the adult king.

James III could have just as appropriately been titled Margaret, Queen of Scots. While the petulant child-like King James III (Matthew Pidgeon) looms large, this play is really about Queen Margaret (masterfully performed by Malin Crépin) as she props up her wildly unstable husband and makes most of the decisions in ruling the country for him. Margaret is a precursor to Hilary Clinton or Imelda Marcos, and this play is a fascinating look at a woman learning to navigate the halls of power and exert her political influence.

Each of the plays is slightly different in tone, focus, and style, they can be viewed separately or in any combination. However, the most satisfying way to view them is to marathon all three in one day and there are a few opportunities left to do so.

Some minor technical points: it’s impossible to achieve full blackout during the day, so there will be ambient light affecting the lighting design if you attend a performance during daylight hours. I imagine the cavernous space in the Hearn must also be a nightmare for the sound designer, and there were initially some minor issues with the acoustics of the space affecting the audibility of the dialogue but with time I adjusted and it became less of an issue.

With the recent referendum on Scottish independence, a trilogy about Scottish nationhood couldn’t be more timely. The James Play Trilogy delivers three deeply compelling character-driven dramas for an immensely satisfying seven hours of theatre.

Details:

  • The James Play Trilogy is playing at the Hearn Theatre at the Hearn (440 Unwin Avenue) through June 26, 2016
  • Tickets $39 – $128.82. Special package rate available when you book all three plays.
  • Show schedule and tickets are available online at luminatofestival.com

Photo of Steven Miller, Andrew Rothney and Matthew Pidgeon by David Eustace.

2 thoughts on “Review: The James Play Trilogy (Luminato)”

  1. Actually stage seating is very popular right now particularly with avant garde directors. A View from the Bridge (Tony winner) had stage seating where you felt immersed in the passions of the play. Both Young Vic productions last year in New York had stage seating. I believe it is growing in popularity because of the sense of being right there in the play.

    1. …and, no doubt, because many companies find they can charge what would otherwise be appalling prices for the privilege.

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