James IV: Queen of the Fight: a handsome history play heavy on combat but light on drama

Daniel Cahill as James IV & Danielle Jam as Ellen in James IV: Queen of the Fight - Mihaela Bodlovic
Daniel Cahill as James IV & Danielle Jam as Ellen in James IV: Queen of the Fight - Mihaela Bodlovic

It is eight years since dramatist Rona Munro and director Laurie Sansom brought us the trilogy known as The James Plays. Telling imagined stories from the lives of James I, II and III of Scotland, the productions met with considerable critical acclaim.

Now playwright and director have paired up again – in a co-production between Raw Material and Capital Theatres, in association with the National Theatre of Scotland – to stage a new play set in the early years of the 16th century, during the reign of James IV. The action begins in Edinburgh just as two high-born black women – Moors from Andalusia, who have been captured on a Portuguese ship pirated by the Scots – are being installed at the Scottish court at Holyrood.

Anne (Laura Lovemore) and her attendant Ellen (Danielle Jam) are not the first Moors to join James’s court, and – although they are looked upon as exotic curiosities – they are also valued for bringing to Scotland a European, cosmopolitan kudos. The bond of survival between the two women is seemingly broken as Anne is taken into the service of James’s alienated and petulant teenage queen Margaret Tudor (daughter of Henry VII of England, played by Sarita Gabony), while Ellen is quartered with the many entertainers that James has taken in at Holyrood.

The play that ensues revolves around the martial and artistic games with which James (played with brittle machismo by Daniel Cahill) attempts to impress the aristocracies of Europe. Many plots – from Ellen’s relations with the “makar” (court poet) William Dunbar (Keith Fleming on scintillatingly humorous form) to a radical change in Anne’s fortunes – jostle for our attention, but, frustratingly, none is pursued with real dramatic conviction.

In the absence of a coherent central narrative, the play zig-zags between soap-opera-style histrionics and regal sitcom. Carefully choreographed scenes of gladiatorial combat function as a substitute for psychologically and emotionally compelling drama.

The production boasts fine design by Jon Bausor, whose stage is an excellent wooden crucible. Lovemore and Jam render Anne and Ellen as resilient and sympathetic characters, while the ever-excellent Blythe Duff is enthralling as the formidable Dame Phemy (keeper of the Queen’s household).

Sadly, however, there is both too much and too little going on in Munro’s play, which never achieves a sense of truly high stakes or high drama.

At Festival Theatre, Edinburgh until Oct 8, then touring Scotland until Nov 12. Tickets and details: rawmaterialarts.com