PG Wodehouse, who was only the twentieth century’s greatest English-language novelist, once remarked that there existed just two ways to write: “One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn.”
I feel something similar about theatre. I can – and do – enjoy a comedy or farce and, blimey, there’s always room for laughter in this – or any other – world. But, in general, I prefer my theatre punishing and draining and liable to leave you exhausted and feeling like the marrow’s been sucked from your bones. I don’t go to the theatre to be entertained. I want to be appalled – and, yes, occasionally cheered – by humanity in all its many forms.
Rona Munro’s trilogy of history plays about the lives of King James I, II and III of Scotland is the centrepiece of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. Upon their success, in some ways, hangs the success – or failure – of the Festival as a whole. It is an ambitious but heartening undertaking. Just the sort of thing the Festival should be doing.
The elephant in the room, of course, is Shakespeare. It is unfair to compare Munro’s work to Shakespeare’s history plays but the comparisons remain inescapable. Of course she falls short. But of course she is trying to do something different. She is not seeking to emulate Shakespeare.
And yet the overlap is unavoidable. We first meet James I through the eyes of a mocking fucking-this-and-fucking-that Henry V. James is 28 now but has been held prisoner in England since he was 10. There has been some jiggery-pokery with the actual historical chronology (this is entirely excusable) and it is Henry V (not, as in real history, Henry VI) who sends his notional vassal back to Scotland to claim a crown he has previously owned in name only.