James II: Day of the Innocents

August 12, 2014 | By More

★★★☆☆   Chilling

Festival Theatre Sun 10 – Thurs 21 Aug 2014

There’s a chilling tone to much of James II: Day of The Innocents. Quieter and more brooding than the plays which bookend it, it provides a necessary contrast, but is the least impressive of the three on its own terms.

Peter Forbes, Andrew Rothney and Blythe Duff. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Peter Forbes, Andrew Rothney and Blythe Duff. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The opening act provides a definite departure from the first play in the sequence, being much more low-key and internalised. Puppetry, dim lighting and elements of repetition conjure up a nightmarish mood that illustrates the fears of the young James II, king while a boy after his father’s murder.

This is effective in itself – the use of puppetry is a particularly good touch, eliminating the need for a child actor while being atmospheric and suggestive.  It also echoes the way that competing forces seek to use the young James as a puppet to press their own claims for power during his minority.

However, it has far less impact as the opening of a discrete work seen in isolation from the first part. The carefully built-up mood, moreover, is largely dissipated in the rest of the play.

Focus is drawn away from the more political side of the story; instead it concentrates on the relationships the king has with his young French wife Mary and his childhood friend William Douglas.

never less than intriguing

Andrew Rothney cuts a sympathetic figure as James, while Stephanie Hyam is a cheerfully impressive Mary. Mark Rowley’s Douglas provides the problem however – not through any shortcomings in his performance, but because the story of his relationship with James loses dramatic impetus long before its drawn-out conclusion.

The lack of sustained dramatic focus means that this play does not have the cohesion it might, and the frightening impact of the beginning is lost. There are still some excellent performances – notably from two actors who play the same roles as in James I. Balvenie (Peter Forbes) grows from being an insinuating, wheedling figure into a rapacious, nearly monstrous one, while Blythe Duff’s Isabella now resembles a caged bird, adding pathos to her terrifying self-possession.

While being decidedly more domestic and apparently less ambitious dramatically, Laurie Sansom’s direction retains its sure touch.

Probably the least impressive part of the trilogy in its own right, this is still never less than intriguing, and grows in interest and significance when seen as part of the sequence.

Running time 2 hours 25 minutes including interval
Festival Theatre , 13-29 Nicolson St, Edinburgh EH8 9FT
Wed 13 and Thurs 21 Aug at 7.30 pm
Sun 10, Sat 16, Sun 17 and Wed 20 Aug at 4.00 pm
Tickets from: www.eif.co.uk/2014/james2

On Tour to London:
The Olivier Theatre,  National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX.

Mon 15 Sept – Wed 29 Oct 2014
Various times
Details on NT website: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/james-ii-day-of-the-innocents

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