by Mario Botto

This year at Luminato, Torontonians can enjoy a traditional, multi-part stage drama, The James Plays Trilogy; a visual and auditory immersion into the points of view of several protagonists in the infamous arms trade – Situation Rooms – and a room-to-room following of the players experience in  The Off Limits Zone.

The James Plays Trilogy, makes its North American debut here, in two-and-a-half hour segments exploring the lives of three Scottish kings who reigned between 1424 and 1488.

James I (The Key Will Keep the Lock), who reigned from 1424 to 1437, is by far the most picturesque and turbulent character of the three kings, whose life was marked by his own kidnapping by pirates as a child, years spent hostage at the English court, his eventual ransom and coronation; whose reign was leavened by ruthless governance, Renaissance-style intrigue, war, crushed rebellions and beheadings of political enemies, and which culminated in his own assassination at the hand of conspirators abetted by his own uncle’s grandson.

…whose life was marked by his own kidnapping by pirates as a child, years spent hostage at the English court…

 James II (Day of the Innocents) was king from 1437 to 1460. Although marred by the political assassination of the Earl of Douglas, his rule proved popular, successful and relatively peaceful. Like his father’s before him, James II’s reign ended in violent death, albeit not by assassination, but by the explosion of his own cannon, at the siege of Roxburgh Castle.

James III (The True Mirror) reigned 28 years from 1460 to 1488. He was an unpopular monarch owing to his unwillingness to administer justice fairly, a policy of pursuing alliance with England, and controversial relationships with nearly all of his extended family. However, it was through his marriage to Margaret of Denmark that he acquired the islands of Orkney and Shetland for Scotland.

In all, a real life Game of Thrones epic drama that debuted in 2014’s Edinburgh Festival, just a few months before the Scottish separation referendum. At the time, the plays received enthusiastic praise as, for example, from Dominic Cavendish of The Telegraph when he wrote (26 Sep 2014): “Better than the Bard? Heresy! But when I think of the elation I felt at the end of Rona Munro’s thrilling trilogy, which spans the turbulent reigns of James I, II and III of Scotland, hurtling us through some 80 years of obscure 15th-century history and even whetting the appetite for more, then I feel compelled to say it: The James Plays leave the competition, namely Shakespeare’s Henry VI cycle, standing…”

Situation Rooms, another North American premiere is an immersive experience where 20 patrons at a time relive through iPads and earphones the experience of 10 (of 20 possible) real people on both ends of the arms traffic, be they a Swiss weapons manufacturer, a Pakistani lawyer or a Mexican drug cartel administrator.

To quote Vicky Frost of The Guardian (Feb 18, 2014), Situation Rooms is a play where “it’s theatre with the audience as actors; journalism with the consumer interacting directly with the story; a video game where the screen bleeds into real and constructed worlds. But above all it is utterly absorbing – for more than an hour you are so busy living this piece of extraordinary art that that you do really become it… The work is intricately and cleverly plotted; the impact of your actions, or a different reading of them, often obscured until several steps on. You can feel strongly about a story as you are living it, only to have your viewpoint challenged by others along the way.”

The Off Limits Zone, is a walkabout play, so-called because the cast splits into two groups, one of which the audience is required to follow, thus creating their own unique experience. Some Torontonians were offered a similar experience with the 1981 play Tamara, where one had to decide in a split second who to follow, guessing where the most interesting action would be.