Review James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock, National Theatre
Review James III: The True Mirror, National Theatre

Review James II: Day of the Innocents, National Theatre

Mark Rowley and Andrew Rothney in James II, National Theatre

Second in the trio of the James plays by Rona Munro James II: Day of the Innocent is, as the title hints, about youth. Where James I was about an adult King claiming his thrown his son James II is a boy and a pawn in a power struggle between Scotland's landed elite. Whoever has the King in his possession holds most of the power.

The play starts with the boy James (Andrew Rothney) hiding from some witnessed horror only to be found and comforted by another boy. The King falls asleep in his arms and has a nightmare through which the story loops back to the night his father was murdered, a puppet representing the younger Prince. Forced to hide in a chest in order to escape, the Prince is eventually seized, removed from his family and brought up by whichever nobleman manages to hang on to him. Eventually the story comes full circle so that we witness the most recent trauma the young King has run from.

It is an event, coupled with others, that gives him terrible nightmares throughout his teens. It is heartbreaking to watch the young Prince seeking refuge in the chest while those charged with guiding and protecting him look on laughing. Only his mother's former maid and the boy - William Douglas (Mark Rowley) - coming to sooth him when he has the nightmares.

Like James I, there is a human story at the heart of the play with politics taking a further back seat.  It is essentially the story of two friends growing up in the medieval Scottish court, one happens to be a King, the other, William, the son of one of the most powerful noblemen in Scotland.

James isn't the only one who is emotionally scarred, William is abused verbally and physically by his father. As the heir to the family fortune he is desperate for his father's approval but makes ill-judged choices which just makes his father abuse him further. The psychological affects of this abuse gradually become apparent.

Sometimes difficult to watch, they make for two fascinating characters. In many ways they are normal, fun-loving teens, full of youthful exhuberance which they share with James' young wife Mary (Stephanie Hyam) and his sister Annabella (Rona Morison). But, of course, their friendship is tested as they grow up, the political wheel spins and James determines to wrest control of the country from the nobles.

Focusing on the King as a youth gives James II a different tone to James I but there is nonetheless a persistent feeling of danger and a tinge of sadness born out of what has come before. Both Rothney and Rowley convince as their characters move from children to adults, from abused to haunted.

James II doesn't quite pack the same energy as James I but is nonetheless a gripping, engaging and a sometimes disturbing piece of drama.

It runs in rep with James I and James III at the National Theatre until the end of October. Each is a standalone play and can be viewed as such but having seen all three in one day I would urge you to do the same. The three back to back are a feast of theatre and a monumental achievement for all involved which you only fully appreciate in seeing them in quick succession.  Each is different in tone and execution but there is a continuity of characters, plot and little jokes that give a deeper context.

Related reviews:

James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock

James III: The True Mirror (coming soon)


Maintaining the King connection, Gordon Kennedy acts alongside Andrew Rothney and he has appeared in Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch who has worked with Andrew Scott - second time he's the common connection with Mr W. Hmmm might have to see if I can contrive him an appearance for the James III connection.