WHEN Scottish playwright Rona Munro began writing James IV: Queen Of The Fight – the fourth on her series of “James Plays” about the kings James of Scotland – she could not have imagined that the drama would open a mere matter of weeks after the death of Queen Elizabeth.

The James IV play will be directed (as were the first three James Plays) by former artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) Laurie Sansom.

It is being staged by Scottish production company Raw Material and Edinburgh producer Capital Theatres in association with the NTS.

Acclaimed Scottish actor Blythe Duff takes one of the leading roles in the play, Dame Phemy, Keeper of the King’s Household). For her, the aftermath of the passing of the Queen is “an extraordinary time to be doing a play about James IV”.

The Queen’s passing has, the actor continues, “added a whole new notion to the piece being sent out at this point”. She thinks the death of the monarch may well alter the way in which people look at the play.

Audience members will, she says, “have been ensconced in that whole world of royalty and the monarchy, and what that means to them, and what it doesn’t mean to them.”

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When it comes to the history of the monarchy, we, in Scotland, tend to think of 1603 and the Union of the Crowns as the pivotal moment. It was then that James VI of Scotland became James I of England, thereby acceding to the throne vacated by the death of Elizabeth I (the woman who executed his mother, Mary Stuart, aka Mary, Queen of Scots).

However, as Duff points out, the marriage of the English princess Mary Tudor to James IV exactly a century earlier, in 1503, was the event that laid the basis for the Union of the Crowns and, arguably, ultimately the Union of the Parliaments (whereby Scotland’s parliament was dissolved) in 1707.

Munro’s drama begins shortly before the famous cross-border nuptials (which were conducted under the terms of the Treaty of Perpetual Peace between England and Scotland, agreed between James IV and England’s king, Henry VII, in 1502).

As Duff observes, this would, in turn, “set the ball in motion” towards the eventual establishment of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

Nevertheless, the actor continues, the history being depicted on stage occurs “before we [Scotland and England] were even joined”. Consequently, she says, it’s important for actors and audiences alike to “try and put ourselves in that world”.

One of the key reasons why theatregoers need to locate themselves in the particularities of the Scottish court circa 1503 is that, in racial terms, it was a very different place to the England and, later, Britain of slavery and empire.

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Munro’s (left) “starting point” for the play was, Duff explains, her discovery, while researching the history, that the court of James IV had within it high-ranking officials of black Moorish ancestry.

The playwright’s research led her to the Scottish pirating of a ship bound for England on which they found, the actor says, “very high, esteemed personnel” who were black Moors. Assisted by historian Dr Onyeka Nubia, who has been a historical consultant on the play, Munro has created the characters of Ellen and Anne, “high-born” black women (played by Danielle Jam and Laura Lovemore) who came to the Scottish court from the so-called “Moorish boat”.

These characters were not at court as racially exoticised curios, Duff adds. In 1503, “the court was used to having black people who were in high positions”.

For example, the character of Peter Morien (played by Thierry Mabonga) is based upon a real figure who “had been in the court for 10 years before the Moorish boat arrived”.

In stark contrast to the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade (which began in 1640), these Africans, far from being viewed as inferiors, were brought to the Scottish court to enhance its reputation. Whilst, in the early-16th century, Scots were as capable as anyone else of xenophobia, they were not yet infected by the pseudo-scientific garbage of racial supremacism.

The play is set in a time before the idea of Europe was synonymous with racism and slavery. By bringing high-ranking Moors into the royal court, the Scottish aristocracy considered themselves to be “very European”, the actor comments.

This brings us to Duff’s character Dame Phemy. The drama focuses on both the incorporation of esteemed black figures within the court of James IV (played in this production by Daniel Cahill) and the king’s love of prestigious artistic tournaments.

Both of these factors are a source of grievance for Dame Phemy, who is, the actor says, a “vile” character. A time-served, senior official in the royal household, Phemy is accustomed to having high status and considerable power within the royal household.

She is, therefore, as Duff explains, deeply resentful of “anybody who interrupts” her power and influence. Both the new, Moorish figures at court and the musicians and actors James has welcomed into the household appear to Phemy as a personal threat.

The artists are, she thinks, a needless expense, while the new courtiers might lead to her being “ostracised and pushed out of the tree”.

All of this makes for a character who is both a killjoy and a xenophobe. The Moors, Duff comments, “don’t really look like her and they don’t speak like her”.

“She [Phemy] can speak French, but they speak Spanish. She’s thinking [of the Moors], ‘you can speak French as well, so why aren’t you speaking French?’”

Fear and resentment of the perceived “outsider” is, as human history shows all too clearly, a dark and powerful combination.

As Duff has proved brilliantly in the past, she is the perfect actor to characterise those bleak forces in a new Scottish history play.