Laurie Sansom makes a return to Northampton’s Royal & Derngate

Laurie Sansom
Laurie Sansom

You might think the former artistic director of Northampton’s Royal & Derngate would be having many firsts when he returns to the venue.

But for Laurie Sansom, the director of The James Plays, it will be the first time he has directed a show on the Derngate stage.

Matthew Pidgeon in James III

Matthew Pidgeon in James III

He said: “During my time at Northampton, I was directing shows in the Royal theatre rather than the Derngate stage.

“I am looking forward to being able to do a show at the Derngate stage for the first time.

“But in the time that I was there as artistic director, I made so many friends and it will be lovely to see them when I make a return.”

The show is three plays about James I, II and III of Scotland by established playwright Rona Munro.

Daniel Cahill (Earl of Douglas) and Andrew Rothney as James II

Daniel Cahill (Earl of Douglas) and Andrew Rothney as James II

Described by The Telegraph as “better than Shakespeare” and “Rona Munro’s thrilling trilogy could be the finest history plays ever penned”, The James Plays, exhilarating and vividly imagined, bring to life three generations of Stewart kings who ruled Scotland from 1406 to 1488. The three kings are played by Steven Miller (James I), Andrew Rothney (James II) and Matthew Pidgeon (James III).

Laurie said: “This is a period of history that many people outside of Scotland won’t have known about. It is one of the questions I get asked about in the show is that am I going to be able to follow this, but they definitely will.

“Although they are historical pieces, the language we use in all of the shows is contemporary and won’t alienate a modern audience.”

Each play stands alone as a unique vision of a country tussling with its past and future, with its own distinct theatrical atmosphere. Viewed together they create a complex and compelling narrative on Scottish culture and nationhood.

The James Plays are historical drama for a contemporary audience, served up with a refreshing modern directness. Audiences have the option to view the performances from the actual stage and share the performer’s perspective of the space. These on-stage seats, built into the set, are at heart of the action, as an ensemble of actors takes the audience through a rarely-explored period of history with playful wit and boisterous theatricality.

The first show about James I is entitled by The Key Will Keep The Lock

Bold and irreverent storytelling explores the complex character of this colourful Stewart king – a poet, a lover, a law-maker but also the product of a harsh political system.

James I of Scotland was captured when he was only 13 and became King of Scots in an English prison.

Andrew Rothney in James II

Andrew Rothney in James II

18 years later he’s finally delivered back home with a ransom on his head and a new English bride. He’s returning to a poor nation, the royal coffers are empty and his nobles are a pack of wolves ready to tear him apart at the first sign of weakness.

But James has his own ideas about how to be a king and, after 18 years, he finally has the chance to realise them. James is determined to bring the rule of law to a land riven by warring families, but that struggle will force him to make terrible choices if he is to save himself, his Queen and the crown.

Laurie said: “I would say the first show is very much in the style of Game of Thrones, in that it is a broad historical epic. It is very much in the style.

Day of the Innocents focuses on James II. The second of Rona Munro’s dynastical trilogy, innocent games merge with murderous intent in a violent royal playground of shifting realities and paranoia.

An eight year old boy is crowned King of Scots. Soon James II is the prize in a vicious game between the country’s most powerful families, for whoever has the person of the boy king, controls the state.

Seen through a child’s eyes, the Scottish court is a world of monsters with sharp teeth and long knives.

Steven Miller in James I

Steven Miller in James I

Growing up alone, abandoned by his mother and separated from his sisters, James II is little better than a puppet. There is only one relationship he can trust, his growing friendship with another lonely boy,

William, the future Earl of Douglas. The two boys cling together as they try to survive the murder and mayhem that surrounds them.

But the independence and power of young adulthood brings James into an even more threatening world. He has to fight the feuding nobles who still want to control him, he has to make brutal choices about the people he loves best, he has to struggle to keep his tenuous grip on the security of the crown and on his sanity....while the nightmares and demons of his childhood rise up again with new and murderous intent.

Laurie said: “It is a tale of innocence and you get to see this history very much from the perspective of a child.

“One of the things that Rona is very good at it is presenting pieces of history and these very big grand events and putting them through a very human perspective.”

The final show in the trilogy about James III is entitled The True Mirror.

Like James III himself, the final instalment of is colourful, brash and unpredictable. It turns its eye on the women of the royal court, both lowly and high born, who prove to be its beating heart.

James III of Scotland. A man who’s irresistible, charismatic, a man of fashion and culture. A man with big dreams ...and no budget to realise any of them. Obsessed with grandiose schemes that his nation can ill-afford and his restless nobles will no longer tolerate, James is loved and loathed in dangerously unstable proportions.

But Scotland’s future will be decided by the woman who loves him best of all, his resourceful and resilient wife, Queen Margaret of Denmark.

As dreams battle brutal realities and the nation thunders dangerously close to regicide and civil war, her true love and clear vision offer the only protection that can save a fragile monarchy and rescue a struggling people. But the cost for Margaret herself may be too high.

Laurie said: “The final play is very much a tale of excess. It is a king who is more occupied with building cathedrals and having a band following him around. Just because he can.

“There are probably many people out there who would take similar liberties if they could.”

But surely presenting three shows one another will be difficult for an audience.

Laurie said: “Actually, it flies by, the plays are so gripping, if seven-and-a-half hours can fly by.

“I look at like people will watch box sets of series, and watch one episode after the other. And that’s what we are presenting on the stage.

“But it is one show after the other, with lots of long breaks for food and to stretch your legs.

“It is such an epic show to put on, we couldn’t have done it without the National Theatre of Scotland, the National Theatre and Edinbrugh International Festival. If it wasn’t for those organisations, we would not have been able to put it on.”

Laurie clearly looks back with a lot of fondness for his time as artistic director of the Royal & Derngate but is reluctant to initially name a favourite show.

He said: “It is probably like picking your favourite child, I have a lot of fond memories.

“The first show we did, Follies, which was a show all about a theatre about to be demolished and we were using it as the show to open up the newly revamped Royal stage. The irony wasn’t lost on me.

“But it was a group of ladies of a certain age, and they were all utterly fantastic.”

The plays take place one after the other on Saturday April 16 and Sunday April 17. If they wish, audiences can view the plays as a complete trilogy, seen over the course of a day, or can spread their bookings over the weekend.

Performances of James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock at 11am on Saturday and Sunday, James II: Day of the Innocents at 3pm both days, and James III: The True Mirror at 7.30pm each day.

Tickets for an individual performance are priced from £24 to £36, and tickets for the three show package are priced from £42 to £78. To book, call the box office on 01604 624811 or book online at www.royalandderngate.co.uk.

Daniel Cahill and the ensemble

Daniel Cahill and the ensemble