(Dominic Cavendish’s article appeared in the UK Telegraph, 9/26.)
Better than the Bard? Heresy! But when I think of the elation I felt at the end of Rona Munro’s thrilling trilogy, which spans the turbulent reigns of James I, II and III of Scotland, hurtling us through some 80 years of obscure 15th-century history and even whetting the appetite for more, then I feel compelled to say it: The James Plays leave the competition, namely Shakespeare’s Henry VI cycle, standing.
Munro infuses every scene with a sense that these people could be our contemporaries; they feel and suffer, fret and plot, love and laugh as we would in their shoes. She flies the flag for clarity and, in the often visceral melee, seeks out moments of saving, as well as savage, humour. She attains a natural lyricism, never forcing the language – an accessible “Scots” – into studied poeticism.
In a sense, the way she rises to the task of asserting a fresh vision that responds to the relevant authorities but bows to no one defines the thematic thrust of the trilogy itself. These three Stewart kings must forge their own sense of self and an idea of what Scotland might be in the face of nigh-impossible challenges.