Mary Woodward Review

James IV – Queen of the Fight, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

***** (5 stars)

“Fascinating and brilliantly-constructed”

What a show!  Rona Munro in collaboration with Raw Material, Capital Theatres and the National Theatre of Scotland have given us another magnificent instalment of the James Plays, following on from the amazing first three and bringing us up to the beginning of the sixteenth century: it leaves us on the edge of our seats desperate to find out what happens next…

I saw the first three James Plays some years ago, and was bowled over by their vitality and immediacy.  James IV – Queen of the Fight continues in the same vein: these people we meet are not ghosts, or memories, but flesh and blood who walked, and fought, and loved and hated just like you and me.  Aye, they’re deid now, but once they lived life to the hilt and faced just as many challenges – often the same ones – as we do today.

James IV centres round Ellen and Anne, two women of colour who unexpectedly find themselves at the Scottish court.  They were travelling to the English court of Henry VII from Moorish Spain when their ship encountered Scottish vessels which brought them to Scotland, where they, though apprehensive of their fate, are made most welcome. “All the world is welcome here”, they are told: the colour of their skin makes no difference, they will be found places at court.   Anne becomes the teenage Queen Margaret’s companion, with the unenviable task of responding and adapting to her unpredictable moods and demands.   Ellen has been Anne’s companion and servant, but there is no room for her too: she has to join the king’s entertainers and must, as well as learning yet another language, become a performer.  She ends up as ‘the Queen of the Fight’ in royal mock tournaments designed to show King James’ exceptional athletic and military prowess.

It’s a gripping story which vividly brings to life the challenges facing everyone at court.  The King, trying to get an heir on his English bride to maintain peace with England, is also dealing with the presence at court of Donald Dhu, the current Lord of the Isles and focus for Highland Scots who are seen as rebels against the crown.  Queen Margaret is a bratty adolscent who feels the world and her husband should revolve around her, and has terrible tantrums every time it becomes clear they don’t.  Makar William Dunbar is trying to get himself a permanent place [and income] at court, and the nobles are all vying for position and favour… [sound familiar at all?]

Add to this mix two young women who have yet again to try to make a life for themselves in new and strange surroundings, with an inhospitable climate, and without the support each has given the other up till now.  Does anyone here act unselfishly, I wonder?  Much is made of Scotland’s reputation for hospitality, but when the chips are down, each person in this drama is acting for their own ends, and willing to sacrifice the others if it means they themselves will survive – except at the end of the play, which I’m not going to reveal.

JAMES IV PRODUCTION PHOTOS BY MIHAELA BODLOVIC

In the main, there doesn’t seem to be obvious colour prejudice – Scots noblemen are perfectly willing to be candidates for Anne’s hand in marriage, seeing the advantage of the King’s favour and not seeming to take any exception to the colour of her skin.  However, the performance of a shocking poem by Makar Dunbar is a pivotal point in the play.  Of Ane Blak-Mor is largely made up of derogatory comments on the woman’s appearance, and was most probably written about one of the two historical figures on whom the characters of Anne and Ellen are based.  It’s a complaint against her prominent position in the King’s court – but is the objection to her physical person, or the heights to which she has been raised?  The third person of colour at court, Peter, is the leader of the group of entertainers, and there seems to be no obvious objection to his presence.

People of colour are not the only ‘different’ ones at court – there is also the Gaelic-speaking Donald Dhu, leader of the Highland clans who have tried to assert their right to lands taken from them by previous Stuart kings, and who is now James’s hostage.  Here’s another person who’s been removed from all that is familiar, while the language he has grown up with is not generally spoken or understood and his point of view is unrecognised.

There’s a strong contrast between ‘public’ and ‘private’ behaviour, especially where the king is concerned – he has to get an heir on his queen, but that doesn’t stop him having mistresses [and bastards] whom he probably loves better than her: he sees nothing wrong in flaunting the latest one in front of his wife.  In his defence, he doesn’t receive much – or any – love from her and, although he’s clearly able to see the political ramifications of his relationship with Margaret, he’s not necessarily so aware about the results of his more irregular liaisons.  The face Anne shows to the queen doesn’t reveal her true feelings; Ellen masks her feelings of isolation and hurt at Anne’s rejection of her; Dunbar’s inferred courtship of Ellen may only be in the hopes of securing a stable position at court; Donald Dhu’s co-operation in the courtly masque/fights is certainly unwilling; and the other courtiers are all looking out for number one.  Dame Phemy is the only person at court who will speak plainly – and be heard – when the King’s behaviour is such that he is losing the love of his subjects.

JAMES IV PRODUCTION PHOTOS BY MIHAELA BODLOVIC

I’m not sufficiently acquainted with the differences between Scots languages and dialects to make an informed comment, but a fellow-audience member pointed out to me that each of the Scottish characters had their own distinctive regional language.  Margaret has her very very English cut-glass accent and attitude and, while those at court may not have understood the Spanish which Ellen and Anne first speak, many were perfectly comfortable with French.  The King even seemed able to manage some Gaelic – evidence, perhaps, of a more cultured and Europe-centric attitude than one might have expected at this point in Scots history.

There are so many levels at which you can view this story – a surface ‘cracking good yarn with a lot of shouting and fighting’; a fascinating, brilliantly-constructed narrative based on tantalisingly few historical records; a meditation on the brutality of self-interest; a narrative showing the presence of unenslaved people of colour in Scotland long before the slave trade; a human drama of loss, displacement, estrangement and the effort required for survival in a potentially hostile environment; the willingness of Scots to welcome and embrace immigrants; and much, much more that will only become clearer on subsequent viewings. 

It’s a tale superbly told by a cast who virtually leap off-stage and grab you by the throat, forcing you to become engaged in the narrative, excluding any possibility of you remaining a disinterested spectator.  Daniel Cahill returns as James, older but possibly not a lot wiser; Danelle Jam [Ellen] and Laura Lovemore [Anne] are superb as the polyglot young women trying to make yet another new life in a foreign country.  Blythe Duff is a splendidly acerbic Dame Phemy, a solid figure who gets on and gets stuff done while the shifting currents at court whirl and swirl around her, while Sarita Gabony is so good as a sulky teenager I kept wanting to slap her…  Keith Fleming [Dunbar], Malcolm Cumming [Donald] and Thierry Mabonga [Peter] all have their own personal agenda but at the same time are puppets in the hands of the king and his whims.  Ewan Black [Turnbull] and Samuel Pashby [Douglas] make the most of their small moments in the spotlight and are major contributors to the superb ensemble playing.   

Acting, script, lights, staging, music, fights, scenery and scene-shifting ‘battles/ dances’ all blend together into the best possible type of drama which holds you spellbound until the final moments.  You may never have heard of these characters before, but you’ll not be able to forget them now.  James IV – Queen of the Fight is a magnificent addition to the James Plays – rock on James V !!

Raw Material & Capital Theatres in association with the National Theatre of Scotland present James IV – Queen of the Fight, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Runs until Saturday 8th October for tickets go to: James IV: Queen of the Fight (capitaltheatres.com)

The production will then tour Scotland until November 2022.

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