It was too big a commitment to book for all 3 of Rona Munro‘s James Plays despite Phil having a bit of Scottish blood in him and James as a middle name. So he opted for the third one, The True Mirror solely for the reason that it featured The Killing‘s sweater girl Sofie Gråbøl. He’s shallow like that.
Then he saw the reviews, with some critics finding this the least successful of the trilogy. Oh dear. Apparently a very different tone to the other bloodier ones, but it was a tone that suited Phil from the moment he saw the pre-performance Highland(ish) jigging (arranged by Alasdair MacRae) to Pharrell Williams’ hugely infectious “Happy”. Even though the nifty dancing was performed against a live set of bagpipes (an instrument he usually finds deeply irritating) and a hammered dulcimer (a hammered dulcimer!!!) he knew he’d have the tune stuck in his head for the next few days.
But the tone continued, TTM is winningly playful throughout. It’s performed in modern dress with medieval nods and discussions about pomp, cathedrals, mirrors and Whinger-pleasing gags about red wine, “It’s not as good as the 1476”. It’s almost Shakespearean without being hard to follow and with jokes that are actually funny.
Turns out James III (Jamie Sives, charismatic and very amusing) was an animated, flamboyant, petulant, choir-obsessed bisexual and intermittently murderous type who didn’t take local unrest, threats of invasion from Sassenachs or life too seriously. His wife is the intelligent and stylish Danish Queen Margaret (Gråbøl), she loves her king and he seems to love her. Well, until he starts porking the laundry maid, Daisy (appealingly played by Fiona Wood). Act 2’s opening ceilidh is performed to The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me Baby”. Tee hee. Gimmicky, but fun.
A co-production between the the National Theatre of Scotland, this National Theatre and the Edinburgh International Festival, it’s staged on a stark platform with a huge sword Excalibur-ishly thrust into it (design Jon Bausor), with some audience members seated on raked seating above. Laurie Sansom‘s directions shifts from comedic to seriousness and back again with ease.
The women feature heavily, with Gråbøl displaying terrific stage presence, authority, poise and flair for comedy. There’s an amusing scene when the King presents her with a new-fangled Venetian mirror and she and others realise what they really look like for the first time. It’s a bit like Downton Abbey keeping up with the changing times and embracing the wireless and toasters. They’re very aware of “change” at Downton aren’t they?
Anachronistic and with some speechifying towards the end with humorous nods to Scottish independence from the now authoritative Queen, “What are you frightened of?” But that moment has passed. As Phil’s companion for the afternoon Katy, noted drily, “Scotland was so last month”.
But the true Scottish question: “What do Scotsmen wear under their kilts?” is soundly answered. Some wear black undies. Some go commando.
Oh, and we a polite ticking off for clambering out of our end row seats via some staging which has been erected over part of the stalls.