The World According to James

An interview with The James Plays director Laurie Sansom

May 12, 2016 | BY: Richard Ouzounian

An interview with The James Plays director Laurie Sansom

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

That famous quote from philosopher George Santayana could easily serve as an epigram for Rona Munro’s sweeping trilogy of Scottish kingship, The James Plays, which will serve as one of the centrepieces of the 2016 Luminato Festival. 

Daniel Cahill and ensemble in James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock. Photo by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.
Daniel Cahill and ensemble in James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock. Photo by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.

A cast of actors playing live music covers everything from traditional Scottish music — yes, with bagpipes — to reworkings of Lady Gaga, Pharrell Williams and a Gaelic rendition of The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” that harkens straight back to the ’80’s.

Three contemporary plays, three historical kings and 82 years of Scottish history (1406–1488) that have largely been forgotten even by the people of Scotland themselves. How does all this combine to create a theatrical event that the UK’s Daily Telegraph hailed as “the finest history plays ever penned,” the Evening Standard called “a towering achievement,” and The Independent praised as “thrilling and satisfying”?

The answer, in the mind of Laurie Sansom, the director of the plays and Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland, is that, “These plays explore the question of how a country is to be ruled.” 

Speaking from his office in Glasgow, he makes reference to Canada’s own national election last fall: “That’s a question you’ve just been dealing with and it’s one we’ve recently had front and centre in our minds as well.” 

Sansom is referring to the fact that The James Plays received their world premiere at the Edinburgh Festival in August of 2014, only a month before the highly controversial referendum on Scottish independence.

“I’d like to think everybody was in the perfect state of mind to see those plays at that time,” he says dryly. “But the fact of the matter is that the people of Scotland didn’t really know that particular period of history any better than the people of Canada do. 

“Rona wanted to introduce this specific period of Scottish history to the people of her country at this particular time. The play takes a look at a time when there’s all manner of bad governance going on and it explores how an individual can affect the broader political and social environment around him or her.” 

Sansom believes that, “when you’re trading one personality at the head of a country for another, it can have far-reaching effects, whether it’s a king, a prime minister or a president.” 

This is bound to resonate strongly in our current climate when names in the headlines like Trudeau, Obama, Clinton and Trump remind us of Sansom’s statement every day.

This was also very much on Munro’s mind when writing the plays. 

“These are stories, epic stories, and hopefully they are entertainment,” wrote Munro in the introduction to the first production. “You should also know that you are about to engage with human stories imagined from a human perspective. 

“These people were contemporary to their own century as we are to ours and human nature has not, I imagine, changed very much over 600 years. Our circumstances are different from these dead kings and queens and long-gone Scots — but, arguably, not as different as we might think.” 

Who are these particular long-gone Scots and how will Sansom and his company bring them to the stage of the Hearn? 

The first play is called The Key Will Keep The Lock and it deals with James I (1394–1437), who became King at the age of 12 but was exiled the next year in an English prison and remained there for 18 years before returning to claim his throne.

Cast of James II: Day of the Innocents. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
Cast of James II: Day of the Innocents. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Never accept a dinner invitation from your enemies. Rumour has it the Black Dinner in James II: Day of the Innocents was the inspiration for the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones. No matter how good the haggis, some meals aren’t worth attending.

“I think the first play has the most traditional history play feel to it,” says Sansom, “but even then you’ll get the sense of complicated, rude, edgy people, talking like any human being talks.” 

The fairest or the freschest yong floure / That ever I sawe, me thoght, before that houre; / For quhich sodayn abate anon astert / The blude of all my body to my hert.
— The Kingis Quair, King James I

Next up is Day of the Innocents, the saga of James II (1430–1460) who was crowned at the age of eight and spent all of his reign struggling against forces inside and outside his family that tried to defeat him. 

“This story plunges you into a child’s nightmare,” is how Sansom describes it. “There’s a whole broader, different physical language to describe all that he’s going through. It’s highly theatrical.” 

Daniel Cahill & Malin Crépin in James III. Photo by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.
Daniel Cahill & Malin Crépin in James III: The True Mirror. Photo by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.

But the third play in the trilogy, The True Mirror, brings things home with the story of James III (1451-1488), told with even more flair and panache. 

“It’s fundamentally a relationship comedy with a bright political surface,” is Sansom’s take. “James III was also himself a bit of a gift theatrically. He was very self-indulgent and flamboyant and actually had a choir following him around so they could add a soundtrack to the more boring bits of his life.” 

The James Plays sound complex and fascinating enough on their own, but they have previously only played in more conventional theatre spaces, like their own home in Glasgow or the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre complex in London. 

How will they work in the dauntingly spacious and ever-evolving Hearn Generating Station? 

“There will definitely need to be adjustments,” says Sansom, “in things like lighting and sound, as well as with the whole scope of the enterprise because of the sheer scale of the building at the Hearn.” 

Sansom has no fears about his company’s ability to adjust. “We’re used to making our productions work for non-traditional theatre spaces. And we really, really wanted to work with Luminato.” 

In fact, Sansom and his colleagues feel that the impressive physicality of the Hearn may have advantageous results in presenting The James Plays

“We’re going to have to bring a more muscular, energetic way of performing the shows, which is perfect, because one of the major things we intended with these plays was to blow away the cobwebs from how history is presented.” 

Audience members can either attend the plays on three successive evenings or attend one of the four special trilogy days when they can become immersed in the experience by seeing all of them together. 

Sansom personally recommends the latter approach because, “You spend your day in the theatre with such a wide canvas spread before you and can simply get lost in the riches of the piece. 

The 1,200 seat Hearn Theatre, home of The James Plays, will be built up with shipping containers. Renderings courtesy of PARTISANS and Norm Li.
The 1,200 seat Hearn Theatre, home of The James Plays, will be built up with shipping containers. Renderings courtesy of PARTISANS and Norm Li.

“Just dive into them. I think you’re going to love them.” 

The James Plays run June 16–26 at the Hearn Generating Station.

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