The tale has the air of the apocryphal, but it is said that an early performance of Sir David Lyndsay's Ane Satyre Of The Thrie Estaitis was greeted with an ecstatic cry from one audience member of "Whaur's yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?"
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Well, to those who have clamoured for that early Scots text to feature more often in the programme of the Edinburgh International Festival, I say: "Whaur's yer David Lyndsay noo?" There are enough references in Rona Munro's new dramas of the lives of James I, II and III for us to be confident that the playwright was conscious of the steps in which she trod. Let us be clear, then, that The James Plays are more than worthy successors to the reputation of that much-vaunted text and their regular revival should become another popular request.
Munro has many fine plays in her canon, in a playwrighting life which parallels exactly my time writing about theatre, but there seems little doubt that this trilogy will come to be seen as a career-defining achievement. Since it builds on her studies as an undergraduate student and incorporates the feminist strand that links all her work into the fabric of the history of her homeland, I guess she may see it much that way herself.
In the context of the 2014 Edinburgh Festival, it is just as significant that the works have been superbly produced by the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Great Britain, in a groundbreaking collaboration, and brilliantly directed by Laurie Sansom in what is a significant a calling card for the second artistic director and chief executive of the NTS. It is that important first success we acknow-ledge today at our Herald Angels.
Sansom has assembled for the trilogy a quite wonderful ensemble cast, whose extended rehearsal period is evident in every moment of the production. James McArdle, Andrew Rothney and Jamie Sives are superb as the three kings and imported Dane Sofie Grabol a very fine Queen Margaret, but the quality extends to new faces like Sarah Higgins and Stephanie Hyam and relative veterans like Gordon Kennedy, who plays a pivotal role in each play. It is the collective that should take the plaudits, because there is not a weak link anywhere on stage.
Regardless of that, I am going to single out Blythe Duff for particular mention, her presence another connecting thread through all three plays, and an actor whose recent career has swiftly eclipsed her television fame on long-running detective series Taggart, with major roles in important new works and accompanying awards and critical praise for her work in them.
Duff is Isabella Stewart in the first and second plays, Regent Consort to James I and a haunting presence as the gaoled and disempowered Isabella in James II, before taking up the role of the older Annabella, James III's all-knowing aunt, in the final play. It is passing strange that the ability to inhabit other characters while still being recognisably yourself is what we love screen actors for, but are less comfortable with in stage performances. That is also a topic for a post-grad thesis rather than a newspaper column, so let's just say that it is what Blythe Duff does with complete and convincing success, and I think Scotland loves her for it.