War and poetry: James McArdle (left) as James II
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Three kings, one country: very timely plays for Scotland

Superbly acted, aggressively and imaginatively directed and providing great variety, these dramas will make thousands of Scots think again about their country.

The James Plays
Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

You know the problem with you lot? You’ve got fuck all except attitude. You scream and shout about how you want things done and how things ought to be done and, when the chance comes, look at you! What are you frightened of? Making things worse? According to you, things couldn’t get worse!

Thus Queen Margaret of Denmark, beautifully played by Sofie Gråbøl, harangues the Scots near the culmination of The James Plays trilogy by Rona Munro – the centrepiece of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival and coming to the National Theatre in London in September.

Ever since the 1980s (and probably before), it has been a persistent complaint that the festival embraces the cultures of everywhere from China to India, Germany and even England but manages to elbow out the host country. It’s an Edinburgh festival, not a Scotland festival. But now, weeks ahead of the independence referendum, the 2014 festival has packed seats, night after night, with dramas about three of the least-known and less successful of Scotland’s medieval kings – James I, James II and James III.

The ambition here is jaw-dropping. The notion that one can get audiences excited about the bloody, murderous and generally futile feuds of the Stewart monarchies while satisfying the hunger for serious art that addresses today’s politics – as well as making a popular success of it – may seem implausible. It is important to note that these are not perfect plays. There are cartoonish moments, which can be grating, and occasional structural weaknesses. But Munro and the National Theatre of Scotland have achieved something close to that impossible dream.

Superbly acted, aggressively and imaginatively directed and providing great variety, these dramas will make thousands of Scots think again about their country. They are also exciting, often funny and easy to watch. (Full disclosure: though I have read all three plays, it was so hard to get tickets that I was able to see only James II: Day of the Innocents and James III: the True Mirror. I couldn’t get into James I: the Key Will Keep the Lock. If the realisation of the script is much better or worse than for the other two, I apologise – though it seems unlikely.)

After the glory years of the independence wars, the story of medieval Scotland is a pretty grim one. A succession of monarchs who weren’t up to it, for different reasons, struggled to hold the authority of the centre against rich, uppity and violent magnates. England, too, suffered from second-rate monarchs but because of the far greater wealth of the English south, the country recovered from its civil wars more quickly, and once its dynasties were established they were infinitely more secure than Scotland’s. The Plantagenets and Tudors sailed south to defeat their enemies. The Scots had only one enemy – on the other side of an open land border – and that enemy was always far more powerful.

James I, played here by James McArdle, was captured by English pirates and spent his adolescence as a captive at the courts of Henry IV and Henry V. His son James II (Andrew Rothney) was blown up by one of his own cannon while besieging the English at Roxburgh Castle in 1460. James III (Jamie Sives), despite constantly trying to form alliances with the English, was drawn into disastrous wars against them and died in a battle with his own rebellious barons.

It would have been, I imagine, relatively easy for Munro to construct from this a straightforwardly nationalistic, anti-English narrative. Instead, she has done something more historically accurate and interesting. These were the years, from 1406 to the end of the 1480s, when, throughout Europe, Renaissance rulers were turning old medieval kingdoms into the beginnings of modern states. The centres got stronger. Urban life grew more sophisticated. Learning became more widely spread. Slowly, haltingly, things got better.

In Scotland, however, the bad luck of having an exiled, captive king, followed by a boy king, aborted the arrival of the early modern world. Aggressive, power-hungry noblemen often had more influence than the crown. Spectacular murders, cycles of betrayal and treachery and a crown unable to raise enough taxes to support itself kept Scotland in the mire.

Out of it all, just as this trilogy ends, we get the greatest of the Scottish Stewarts, James IV, a true Renaissance prince presiding over a cultural and political revival. He created the first proper Scottish fleet, forged new alliances with England and France, put down rebellions, tamed the lord of the isles, introduced the printing press and modern foundries to his country and commissioned spectacular buildings.

It’s a remarkable, self-denying ordinance that Munro didn’t make a play about him. But he came too late: the English problem arose again and virtually the entire ruling class of Scotland was slaughtered at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. In Scottish history, the timing is almost always tragic.

Munro contests none of this but instead of a litany of disasters and bloodshed – Game of Thrones without the laughs – she shows a succession of flawed, fallible men of their time trying to make a fist of it against awful odds. They are not alien creatures – what they want is good wine, music, roses, decent food, sex and security. The first James was a poet who finally defeated his enemies. The second, scarred by a terrible birthmark and hideous early years, overcomes his demons and murders his dangerous best friend, William Douglas (Mark Rowley). Poor behaviour – but necessary if the monarchy is to survive. His is a tragic coming-of-age story. His son James III is wilful, pleasure-fixated and capricious but has the good luck of marrying one of the few heroines in Scottish history, Margaret of Denmark, who rules for much of the time more effectively than her petulant husband can ever do.

In the interlinked human stories of these kings, Munro persistently shows us admirable, feisty, dangerous and inspired women. Joan Beaufort (Stephanie Hyam), who marries James I, is a whirlwind of practical and common-sense activity. Her Scottish serving woman Meg (Sarah Higgins) gets some of the best lines.

Meg: We eat stones in Scotland.

Joan: You do not!

Meg: It’s the truth. Our earth is so poor, we have to suck the stones out of the fields instead of growing corn. We make a sauce of mud. We’ve nothing sweet to eat at all.

In the same play, the Stewarts’ most terrifying enemy isn’t a man but the matriarch of the rebel family, Isabella (Blythe Duff). In the second play, Meg, now the nursemaid of the young James II, is a rare centre of compassion and sanity; later on, his French queen, Mary (also played by Hyam), is braver and funnier than him. Finally there is the extraordinary Margaret of Denmark in the third play. She, not James III, is its real hero.

And so we come back to the question of what these plays are politically. Nationalistic plays would have portrayed Scotland, represented by its kings, as in some way better or more authentic than those elsewhere. These kings seem, on balance, worse in almost every way. A nationalistic drama would have given all the best lines to Scottish heroes. These plays give the best lines to French and English women and a Dane and good lines to Scotland’s enemies. (Jamie Sives as Henry V groans: “Bloody Scots. Every time you turn around, there’s another one in your beard.”) Nationalistic plays are full of grievance and windy promises of a better tomorrow. These aren’t.

What they are, however, is intensely patriotic. You don’t love a country because it’s rich or powerful. You love it because it’s particular and it’s yours. James I explains to his wife why he loves Scotland, with its wind and icy rain and poverty:

. . . [Scotland] will be poorer but all its people will know their worth and know how to fight for it. It will be a tiny part of the world but it will know all the world knows. It will be assaulted but it will never be broken. It will make no quarrel

where it isn’t provoked . . . But it will bend to no other nation on this earth.

That’s not: “We’re better.” Yet it is patriotic enough to please anyone in the Yes campaign. At the end of the trilogy, Margaret berates Scotland’s three estates:

Have you blown your nose and lost your brain? Who would want the job of ruling Scotland? I’m Danish, you ignorant, abusive lump of manure! I come from a rational nation with reasonable people . . . You drive me mad.

But she goes on to explain why she loves Scotland nevertheless:

You showed me that the more frightened you are, the better joke you can tell about it. You taught me you can find friends anywhere you share food and drink if you just wait and see how to join in the conversation . . . The comfort of community is warmer and softer than cold gold could ever be . . .

When I heard that, I felt intensely moved in a patriotic, not nationalistic, way. Waves of emotion pulsed through the overheated Edinburgh Festival Theatre.

I have no idea how this is going to play in London. There should be no overwhelming language problem – this is modern demotic Scots but easy to understand. Audiences that have enjoyed the Hilary Mantel plays will recognise much here, from the use of puppets and dancing to the speed of action, and for anyone who wants to see the world through Scottish eyes, this is an almost perfect place to start. 

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism