Epic trilogy coming to Norwich brings to life the tumultuous times of 15th century Scotland

NNF16 - The James Plays. Photo: David Eustace.

NNF16 - The James Plays. Photo: David Eustace. - Credit: David Eustace

An epic trilogy charting Scottish history during the turbulent reign of three 15th century kings is taking to Norwich Theatre Royal stage this weekend for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Arts correspondent Emma Knights speaks to actor Steven Miller, who plays James I, about the shows.

NNF16. The James Plays. Photo: David Eustace.

NNF16. The James Plays. Photo: David Eustace. - Credit: David Eustace

History, conflict, intrigue and more will be played out on the Theatre Royal stage this weekend as audiences are taken on a rollercoaster ride through 15th century Scotland.

It is the time of the Stewart Kings and, as The James Plays trilogy written by Rona Munro shows, it is a period of history packed full of drama of epic proportions.

The shows are a three-part spectacle designed to be watched all in one day, and the first of the trilogy, James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock, sees actor Steven Miller take on the title role.

Fans of the TV drama Casualty will remember him as the character Lenny Lyons and he has also previously performed at the Theatre Royal in The Perfect Murder.

Now Mr Miller, who is originally from Tillicoultry, is enjoying playing out the history of his native Scotland and is clearly very passionate about the shows.

'These are, I think, modern classics,' he said.

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'Do not miss it - it's an amazing day at the theatre. It's such an experience.'

He added: 'It's a part of history that's got very little known about it. There are certain things that are known but there are vast gaps...We are following things that we know to be true and using dramatic licence to fill the rest of the gaps.'

The trilogy has been likened to the Game of Thrones series and Mr Miller agrees there are some similarities.

'I guess to an extent there's definitely that kind of Game of Thrones flavour,' he said.

'It's those sorts of worlds minus the dragons that the stories are inhabiting here.'

When asked about his role of James I, he said: 'They [the kings] are all very different. James I was described as the poet king. He has more romantic ideas about what being a king is. He starts off the play as a prisoner of King Henry [of England]. He was a prisoner for 18 years, captured as a child. He grows up in this weird situation with the status of a king, and to an extent treated as such, but he's also treated as a prisoner...Whereas Henry rules as a tyrant king, James I has his own ideas of how a king should rule - if you look after the little man the little man looks after you, and that's his way of doing things when he comes back to Scotland.

'But he's met with feudal Scotland whereby all these different groups make their money by war and ransoming. He's immediately met with a difficult situation, then a detail on top of that, he's madly in love with his queen.

'It's all about his journey - his romantic principals are all well and good but if people aren't listening to you...'

After playing the lead character in the first play, you could perhaps forgive Mr Miller for taking a rest in the next two, but that is not his style.

'I didn't do this job to sit around!' he joked, revealing that when he was told he would only be in the first and third play, he asked for an extra part in the second show.

He is an ensemble member in James II: The Day Of The Innocents, a show which sees the young monarch, played by Andrew Rothney, take the throne at just six-years-old and Scotland's most powerful families using him as puppet in their plans to seize power of the country.

James III: The True Mirror follows the fortunes of a king, played by Matthew Pidgeon, who mixes charisma with a lack of common sense and divides the nation he rules, leaving it to his wife, Margaret of Denmark, to rescue the struggling country. In this final play Mr Miller takes on the role of Sandy, the king's younger brother.

And while the shows are based on events from six centuries ago, Mr Miller said they still had resonance with 21st century audiences

'Absolutely, I think everyone of them has very, very up to date, current themes...It's the same with Shakespeare, why is Shakespeare relevant - human emotions - and that hasn't changed over time. The time we are talking about, the political times of the day or stories have changed or evolved but the emotional drive of each of the characters is just as prevalent as it is today.'

Watching 80 years of history in one go is certainly no mean feat, with the three plays running to a total of more than seven hours plus breaks.

But Mr Miller said people should not be put off by the length of the trilogy.

'Absolutely see it all in one go,' he said.

'It's so modern and fresh. It doesn't take its time. It rattles through and you are taken on a journey. There are definitely things that link from one to the next to the next. Once it starts you have got your breaks but let's not stop.'

When asked what it is like performing in such an epic piece of theatre, he said: 'To be honest, if this was the repetition of the same show I would maybe have a different answer. The way things happen for us when the show starts at 11am, we are in there [the theatre] from 9am for fight calls and make-up. The day just goes once you are doing the performances themselves.

'I don't really get the chance to eat between one and two. From an acting perspective it just rattles through and because it's three different plays it it doesn't feel repetitive, it feels like it is an extension of the one story.

'It's just a pleasure. It feels like a privilege to do it.'

The trilogy, directed by Laurie Sansom, is presented by National Theatre of Scotland, Edinburgh International Festival and National Theatre of Great Britain

The James Plays are at Norwich Theatre Royal on May 14 and 15. The three plays are at 11am, 3pm and 7.30pm each day. Tickets for all three performances cost £24-£85.

The plays are suitable for ages 14 and over.

For more information and to book tickets, visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000.

The Norfolk and Norwich Festival runs from May 13 to 29. Visit www.nnfestival.org.uk

Do you have a festival story? Email arts correspondent Emma Knights at emma.knights@archant.co.uk