Jamie the Saxt
By Robert McLellan.
Directed by Rae Mcken.
The Finborough Theatre, London, UK
7th August - 1st September 2007
“They're all out to get me!”
This sounds like the cry of someone who's paranoid. In the case of King James VI of Scotland, however, it was true. He couldn't trust anyone and this play sets out to show us what was going on.
That much I understood. Sadly, I couldn't understand a large proportion of the dialogue. It's not that the lines weren't brilliantly delivered. They were certainly produced with great energy and feeling. The problem was that it was in Scots and I'm afraid that my Scots is not what it could be (Scots is a dialect, not just an accent). Don't let that put you off though. Once I got past the fact that I wasn't going to understand a lot of the language, I could focus on the emotion and action and enjoy it for that.
Jamie the Saxt depicts a point in time in the life of King James VI of Scotland, who later became King James I of England. The relationships and motives between him and those around him were complicated. In the play, everyone is scheming against him in an effort to gain power. He is particularly unpopular for his support of the Papists (Catholics), to whom he turned to help him defend his throne even though he was Protestant. He has one particular enemy, The Earl of Bothwell, who happens to be his stepfather. Bothwell was accused of using witchcraft to try to kill King James and was found guilty of treason, thus stripping him of his titles and property. In the play, he is let into King James' bedroom by James' wife, Anne, and attempts to force the king to sign an agreement pardoning Bothwell of treason. He is quite happy to stand trial for witchcraft though, as he figures he won't be convicted. Meanwhile, the Scottish lords, who exert some power over the people, are unhappy with James' tolerance of the Papists and fear that Spain will take control over Scotland. The Kirk (Church of Scotland) is more than just unhappy, but incensed. The bailies (civil officers) just want to be paid. The queen of England sends a representative, Sir Robert, to James' aid, but he is a man of words, not action. And Queen Anne? Well, she seems to be more in love with a nobleman than King James. Could it be because the king is gay? Never mind, they have a baby together anyway.
Despite all the plotting and scheming, King James still comes out on top. He discovers that Bothwell has been in cahoots with the Papists all along, thus removing any last shred of respect that the Scottish nobles had for him. The Kirk is also dismayed, having put their faith not just in God but also in Bothwell, believing that he would fight for their causes. Now who can they turn to? Apparently, Sir Robert, as he is revealed to be secretly trying to aid them. This is very naughty, as he isn't supposed to meddle in Scottish affairs.
There are a couple of memorable scenes that provide a little digression from the overall plot of the play. Somehow, King James manages to be naked for several minutes without once revealing his willy. I wonder how many rehearsals it took before he was able to do that? There is also a funny episode where the Scots are unable to comprehend a Cockney, suggesting that the playwright, Robert McLellan, had some sympathy for his non-Scots speaking audience members.
Two outstanding members of the cast are John Wark, who plays King James, and Mark Torrance, who plays Lord Bothwell. Wark is full of spirit and expresses himself so convincingly through his body language that it doesn't matter if you can't understand the actual words. Torrance makes you believe his anger and determination, and the tension between the two characters fills the theatre 'til you break out in a sweat. Gillian MacGregor, who plays Queen Anne, reminds me of Elijah Wood as Frodo in Lord of the Rings. She is continuously wide-eyed and blank, but maybe this is how Queen Anne is meant to be. She has the tricky task of speaking not only in Scots, but with a Danish accent. I can only give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she achieves this, as I sometimes couldn't tell whether the cast were speaking Scots, Danish, or another language altogether. David Haydn, who plays the Englishman Sir Robert, is the only one whose words I could fully understand, yet a slightly monotonous delivery means that I am now struggling to remember what he said. The rest of the cast are very good at keeping the pace up and are believable as their characters. All in all, this production has the quality of acting that wouldn't look out of place in a West End theatre. I predict that many of the cast members will go far, so you should go and see them now while you can.
For a bit of history, a lot of drama, and the experience of listening to Scots, go and see this play.
Gripping portrayal of a man navigating his way through the minefield of disparate factions. Personal, political, religious, monetary and militarily powerful elements initially conspire against Jamie and initially he has little or no control over any.
Jamie navigates his way through with clarity and confusion, by a combination of luck and skill, action and inaction, playing the fool and by clever argument. Ultimately the other factions are also divided by their own self interest and would rather have the King in control than Bothwell.
It is the brilliance of the writing that these elements all interact at such a pace and clarity, through religious, political and philosophical debate, the threat of physical force or the power of the mob. It is a mark of the strength of the performances that when English English speakers may not always follow what is going on line by line, the unfolding play is clear through action and emotion and each scene is real and tense.
If you're prepared to tackle the Scots language, this play is definitely worth seeing.