Review: James II – Day of The Innocents, National Theatre

“You’re a great-great-great-grandson of the Bruce. Like me. You could be King.”


On first sight, it may seem that James II – Day of The Innocents is the weakest of The James Plays. On a personal note, it is blighted with blasted puppets which is rarely a good thing for me and more generally, the structure of the first half is more challenging than anything else across the trilogy. But on reflection and on reading the play, it isn’t that difficult to follow and across the broader sweep of the three dramas, there’s something admirable in the determination of writer Rona Munro and director Laurie Sansom to stamp a different identity on each one and ensure that whilst seeing them all would be great, it is far from necessary.

As with his father, assassinated by some disgruntled noblemen, the young James II finds himself a prisoner for much of his early life, this time held captive by Scotsmen though, who use the young monarch to legitimise their dominance of the privy council. Through a series of fever dreams, flashbacks are played out with nightmarish intensity by the puppets whilst concurrently we see their effects on a haunted young man. Much of the success of these scenes lies with the listeners – Blythe Duff’s imprisoned Isabella and Sarah Higgins’ compassionate Meg – who anchor the fantasia of this first half and gently hint at the forthcoming trials that James must face.

As Andrew Rothney’s youthful monarch grows into his power and finally seizes control, the play then telescopes into what is virtually a two-hander as Munro probes into his relationship with his best friend William Douglas, who as a cheeky young scamp was a vital lifeline during the house arrest but as a young adult finds himself seduced by all the potential of being the king’s right hand man. In Mark Rowley’s hugely charismatic performance, we see exactly how James would have tumbled for his charms, the homoerotic frisson that exists between the two feels entirely justified but as each of their roles change, so too must their relationship as we discover James really is his father’s son.

This shift into intimate psychodrama works really well and neatly connects back to the earlier traumatic childhood scenes to explore once again how power changes even the most closely held of relationships and how easily it corrodes and corrupts. The ensemble work here remains strong – the box-shifting choreography is stylishly energetic and the giant sword of Jon Bausor’s design is breathtakingly illuminated in one of the trilogy’s most striking visual moments. James II is a tricksy beast to be sure but definitely worth persevering with as its constituent parts coalesce into an ultimately powerful whole.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £4 (covers all 3 shows)
Booking until 29th October

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