Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The James Plays: James II Review and Interview with Andrew Rothney | LittleEllieMae

The James Plays by Rona Munro have caused quite a buzz within the theatre scene, so I was very excited to see that Plymouth had been added to their tour.

** This post may contain spoilers!**

An ensemble of twenty actors portray Scotland's Stewart Kings of the fifteenth century within a trilogy of plays in one day- 11am, 3pm and 7pm showings. Described as a 'box set' of theatre, audiences can spend the day following the history and culture of Scotland through different narratives. 

I had hoped to spend the day watching all three shows but unfortunately I was not able, but I did manage to catch one show, 'James II- Day of the Innocents'.

As the name suggests, 'James II' tells the story of the Scottish king (1430- 1460) who succeeded the throne after the death of his father, just aged six years old.

Andrew Rothney plays the lead as James II. The play opens with Rothney playing James as a six year old,"just a wee bairn", who then ages into his twenties as the narrative develops. I usually find adults acting as children somewhat unnerving (it can remind me of the cringe Haribo advert where adults speak in strange kids' voices...) but Rothney and Andrew Still (who plays William Douglas) portrayed the youths fantastically. They presented the young characters with vulnerability alongside the fun, playful aspects which made it seem much more believable.

The story follows James' development as his new role of King, where he is exploited by greedy nobility which even leads to the death of his two cousins under 'his' command, causing continuous nightmares and constant fear for the young King.

However, it was the relationships portrayed that drew my attention most; Young William Douglas, son of Balvenie of the Douglas family, befriends James II in a moment of pure burden which is physically shown as he repeatedly confines himself in a wooden box. The friendship between James and William develops throughout the show, where the audience become engrossed in their intimate relationship (which actually hints at sexual tension between the two) so it is completely traumatic to witness the heartless, destructive end in the final scene where James violently stabs William who acted as a threat in his spiraling mental state- from this moment the King gains his real status as leader.

It is also interesting to witness the character growth of James after meeting his wife, Mary (Rosemary Boyle), and reuniting with his sister, Anabella (Dani Heron) who represent the fun, playful aspects within James' life of bloodshed and destruction.

Jon Bausor's impressive set included unique on-stage seating which provided a simple yet hugely effective backdrop for the narrative. His costumes were also a compelling aspect of the show; with beautiful traditional fifteenth- century robes and gowns paired with hints of modern pieces such as combat boots and jean-like trousers. This added a sense of familiarity to what could potentially be seen as an unrelatable, outdated story set a million miles away from modern audiences.

Philip Gladwell provided immaculate lighting design. This isn't something I usually take much notice of, but the dark and moody lighting added to the spine-chilling atmosphere in the auditorium.

The script, set, costumes and lighting are all massive contributing factors to the success of this show but I believe that it is the committed performances from the cast that make it what it is. It has been a while since I have witnessed such poignant, heartfelt performances. Each character is hugely complex but every actor brings energy and passion to the stage. Though for me it was Rothney and Still who delivered stand-out performances. In the longest scene of the show, the two lead characters argue and William descends into a state of madness- this does not comes across as tedious, but sparks with crippling tension and chemistry between the them which grasps the audience right until the very end.

Filled with drama, captivation and plain interesting history, James II delivers perfect performances which will engage all audiences.

Andrew Rothney, who played the lead role of James II, kindly answered a few questions in an interview with me. I wanted to find out more about the production and how he has succeeded in creating this notorious character:

This show was an emotional roller-coaster for the audience, so I can imagine it can be hugely demanding on you, the actor. How do you prepare yourself for the show each day?

Because we are quite far into the run of the shows we all have gotten into the groove of the day ahead of us. At the start of the run it was quite daunting to do double triples over a weekend, its by no means easy but it is more than doable. It's a case of managing your energy. Everyone has different ways of preparing for James 1. Stretching, vocal warm ups and some Swedish metal is how I prep for it. 

Your character, James II, is massively complex. How did you prepare for the role? Did you carry out any specific research on the historical character?

There isn't much in the way of concrete facts about James II. Rona has collected all the facts of what happened during his reign and has pieced together the narrative from there. Because I'm playing a young child in the first act I watched "The secret life of six year olds" to allow me to observe how children create a world for themselves to live in. How they cope in hard situations etc.  I also researched emotional PTSD in an effort to understand James's struggle which helped me inform a lot of what happens in the action. As far as prep goes it varies. However right after the mayhem of James 1 I like to hole myself away, listen to some delicate music and just keep myself attentive to what I've got to bring with me as soon as that kist opens. 

What is your favourite thing about playing James II? And what do you find most difficult?

It's very satisfying when James begins to take control over his life with the help of Mary (the amazing Rosemary Boyle), they are committed to start their lives without fear, to go out there and own their destiny. I'm happy for him when he starts to gain peace. 
The most challenging is the first half. Playing James from 6 to 9 is tricky, there is very little leeway when adults play children. It requires the audience to completely suspend their disbelief and it can be marmite to some audiences. To accept that I am an adult who playing a child. However I say let the story speak for itself.

The on-stage seating is something very unique for a touring production like this; what's it like to be so close to audience members? Have there been any mishaps with audience members on-stage so far?

It's a great experience to look the audience right in the eye and talk to them like they are the parliament. I love it. I've knocked a few knees but apart from that actors and audiences have left unscathed! The excitement on the audiences faces is such a joy!

You've been touring with this production for a while now, what has the reception from audience members been like? Why do you think audiences seem to resonate with this show so much?

The reception has been amazing considering that these Kings and stories are quite obscure to English and Scottish audiences.
Rona wrote these plays and they characters to mirror ourselves. These people were just like you and I. People who love, who envy, who make mistakes. James the 2nd for instance is about a young man who has been damaged by the older generation in various ways. That play in particular is about the young pushing out the old and I think that is very powerful

In just one sentence, tell my readers why they should go and see The James Plays..!

Come and see all three plays in a day, you will experience something unique and something you aren't likely to forget anytime soon.

I give this show a fantastic ★★★★★.
I can't remember the last time I've been so engaged with a play. I NEED to catch the other two plays some time soon.

The James Plays are currently touring the UK so make sure you catch it at a venue near you!

A big thank you to Andrew for kindly taking part in my interview.

Have you seen The James Plays yet?! Let me know by commenting below or tweeting me @LittleEllieMae.

Ellie Mae x

Disclaimer: My ticket to the show was complimentary from the Theatre Royal Plymouth but as always. all opinions and thoughts are 100% my own. Thanks to Andrew for the interview.


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