James IV: Queen of the Fight

05/10/22

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

For the fourth part of her epic series about Scottish history, Rona Munro chooses to focus her gaze upon a little known episode in the reign of James IV – the influence of two ‘Moorish’ women on the Scottish court and the events that lead to the writing of Ane Blak Moor, a derogatory (and openly racist) poem written by the Makar, William Dunbar (Keith Fleming).

In 1504, Lady Anne (Laura Lovemore) and her servant, Ellen (Danielle Jam), arrive at the Scottish court. Anne is to be lady-in-waiting to James’s young English bride, Margaret (Sarita Gabony), so Ellen is left to form her own alliances. She soon finds a role within the royal household – as an entertainer – and eventually finds herself the confidante/lover of King James (Daniel Cahill). She plays the titular ‘Queen of the Fight’ – a kind of MC – in the symbolic tournaments he leads. But Margaret’s jealousy of the woman she perceives as an interloper will have significant consequences for James and his followers – and shows how, even though the King apparently champions diversity, when push comes to shove, racism rears its ugly head.

The real strength of this production is the way that Munro finds contemporary echoes in these historical characters, who talk and act like the kind of people you might encounter in modern-day Edinburgh. This is particularly apparent in Dunbar, who is obliged to cut his cloth according to the changing mood, in order to eke a meagre living from his writing. His grumpy observations about his precarious existence put me in mind of a typical freelancer, forever having to apply himself to the fickle moods of the court. Clearly some things never change. (No, no, never been there myself…)

This is a handsomely mounted production, from Jon Bauser’s elaborate set designs to the sumptuous costumes by Karen Short. (I love the way the play begins with the characters in contemporary clothes, before they are dressed in their period finery.) There are some wonderfully boisterous fight scenes too, the participants swinging broadswords at each other with wince-inducing gusto.

There’s so much to enjoy here – I’m especially amused by Gabony’s petulant, seventeen-year-old bride, too moody to even get out of bed – and there are Dame Phemy’s delightfully caustic remarks (Blythe Duff); she has worked in the court longer than anyone and has everybody (including the King) dancing to her tune.

Queen of the Fight is proof, if ever it were needed, that historical fiction doesn’t have to be dull and strait-laced. Here is a production that positively thrums and pulses with energy and one that genuinely earns an exuberant and heartfelt ovation.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

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