The Ballad of James II @ Rosslyn Chapel, Edinburgh

directed by
Bruce Strachan
Audience responses after this new show by Douglas Maxwell indicated that knowledge of James II of Scotland is extremely limited.

It seems he is frequently confused with James II of England (James VII of Scotland) but for the record, this James II reigned from 1437 until 1460 in a period of intense political manoeuvrings, although as Maxwell confirmed, this is a work of fiction, only based loosely on historical events.

Written in verse, the play focuses on the King and his wife, Queen Mary; Queen Joan, his mother; the comical cleric, Walter Bower; and the King’s charismatic political rival Douglas. The verse is subtle rather than in-your-face and shouldn’t offend those who can find such things irritating (of which I am frequently one).

The events portrayed take place at the height of a political crisis, as Douglas is becoming the People’s Prince. Civil War may be only days away if the situation cannot be resolved. In addition to these external problems James is also faced with manipulation by his wife and mother as they compete to be the power behind the throne.

His worsening mental state manifests itself initially as voices and later as a split personality, which may belong to his long dead twin. With such plot elements this could easily descend into farce, however Maxwell’s tight writing keeps the humour light and the tension high.

Scott Hoatson’s portrayal of James avoids veering into the manic, and instead we are given a sympathetic James, a tortured soul who longs for a simple farmer’s life. A King who due to his birthmarked face feels unloved by his people and is fearful of being remembered as unworthy of the crown. But as the voices take control Hoatson brings James the Second to life in a Hyde-like manner of strength and viciousness. His internal struggle is believable, as are the reactions of those around him.

As Queen Mary, Lois Creasy provides a complex foil for Hoatson’s James, at times appearing genuinely fond of him while not always acting in his best interests. Creasy succeeds in making the dynamic work and also conveys Mary’s struggle with her own demons.

Charles Donnelly as Bower and Lori McLean as Queen Joan provide strong support and make their characters more than mere devices for driving the plot, while Neil Smith brings a genuine level of charisma to Douglas.

Staged in the round, Bruce Strachan’s direction is rather static in Act I with much of the dialogue taking place seated around a table, but it doesn’t impact greatly on the pace of the performance and given the movement in Act II it’s perhaps a wise decision to save his actors’ energy.

The second act features a wide-ranging swordfight (which, during the post-show discussion, Maxwell gave as his motivation for writing a historical piece). The fight roams the central stage area and then continues around the backs of the audience, as the verbal duelling of the two Queens, Mary and Joan, takes centre stage.

After the duel concludes it would be easy to lose the momentum but the cast work well to bring the play to a close in a flurry of energy – in a finish that left the audience thoroughly satisfied.

It seems churlish to quibble with a piece that was such a joy to watch, but there was one aspect of the production that disappointed – given that the play is set almost entirely within a castle, staging it within Rosslyn Chapel would seem ideal, but it is lit in such a manner that the unique environment of the chapel is largely wasted with only darkness beyond the audience.

Fortunately Nonsenseroom, the production company, have provided an alternative option for those wishing to see the Chapel in all its glory. On Saturday evenings there are special performances which, although more expensive, include a light buffet and wine, plus a post show Q&A with the cast and a tour of the chapel. With a small audience it’s a wonderful chance to view the chapel without the tourists The Da Vinci Code has brought, and really makes the whole evening into a memorable event.

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