I had the pleasure of chatting with Danielle Jam about Rona Munro’s James IV: Queen of the Fight in which she plays Ellen, the eponymous queen of the fight. We spoke about her character in relation to power, race, and identity and the relevance to a modern audience of a story steeped in 16th-century Scottish history.
James IV: Queen of the Fight is currently touring Scotland and will be performed live at the Macrobert Arts Centre in Stirling between November 9 and 12. Get tickets here.
Can you introduce your character?
‘‘My character in James IV is called Ellen and she is the Queen of the Fight, hence the title.’’
Tell us a little bit about the play. What can audiences expect?
‘‘The play is about two Moorish women who worked in the royal court of Europe, and they are fleeing a plague that infected Spain where they were living. They’re expecting to arrive in England to start working for the court there. However, England and Scotland have, as we know, a long history of tension, and Scotland intercepts the ship on its way to England and takes the women up to Scotland, so they arrive here which is not what they planned. Because they’ve left everything behind, they have to find their way in this new world, in this new country, and it’s all seen through their eyes, what Scotland is and was at that time.’’
James IV: Queen of the Fight is the fourth instalment in Rona Munro’s James plays. How is this one different?
‘‘Well, I never got to see the first three, so I’m going off what other people have told me, but for me I think the obvious part is that it centres around two people of colour, well, four people of colour in the court. It’s from an outsider’s perspective of what this country is, and it’s addressing some truths about racism in Scotland.
I think Rona [the playwright] is very good with always shining a light on the truth of the stories that we tell ourselves and what the real stories are about the country, and she’s just continuing that, but this time it’s more inclusive of people who have called Scotland their home for a long time.’’
Let’s talk about the title. I rather like the juxtaposition of the male figure and the allusion to a female figure. On the one hand, the play centres around King James, yet the subtitle seems to suggest otherwise. Can you comment on this?
‘‘Yeah so, James IV is known as the king of Scotland, and potentially the most liked king of Scotland that there’s ever been, and Queen of the Fight addresses this era of time where they were putting on pageantry tournaments to perform for the people of Scotland and beyond, to show how awesome James is at fighting and how well-skilled he is, and how powerful he is as a king, and basically show off his skill.
So, my character ends up being part of that. She is the queen of the fight so she judges the tournaments and decides who was the winner. Of course, the winner always has to be James, but he was the best as well. So, that’s how those two are connected.’’
King James IV is obviously central to the play, but so are your character Ellen and the other central female character Anne, both of whom arrive at his Scottish court in 1504. What is their role and how are they important to the unfolding of the main action?
‘‘Ellen and Anne are both royal courtiers, and when they arrive in Scotland their story begins with them not knowing if they can survive while they’re here, and they don’t know why they’re here, why they’ve been brought to a different country when they were supposed to be in England. So, the action really unfolds when Anne gets a place beside the queen to serve her, which was hopefully going to be the plan for Ellen as well. But there’s complications, so Ellen ends up getting pushed in with the entertainment of the court.
The action really follows both of them trying to get back to each other again. They’ve been separated, and for me the story is really about how they lose each other and find each other again. They’ve been with each other from a really young age, and they’re, in my opinion, soulmates. It sort of asks the questions, what will we do for power, and what will we sacrifice for power. And Ellen then being able to attach herself to James and the shows gives her a leg up and that’s sort of how they, I guess, that’s how the story unfolds with what relationships they can make in the court in order to help themselves to climb up the ladder, because their reputation is everything in this world, and who you know, and who you get on with, who you don’t get on with, it’s a tricky balancing act to play.’’
Ellen and Anne are women of colour, in Scotland, in the early 1500s. How do they navigate the challenges presented by the period?
‘‘So, they were very well off. The historical records show that these women financially were secure and stable, and they were paid a lot for their work in Scotland. And before they got here, they would’ve been working for the royal children in Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, so they were women of status and they had reputation. So, the historical context shows that when the Inquisition happened in Spain, because they’re of Muslim descent, basically all of their rights to their homes, their wealth, that was all taken away from them, and that along with the plague and their physical safety, that was part of why they moved to Scotland.
Now, in Scotland, before they arrive there’s record of Peter Morian, Peter the Moor, working there already, and also a musician, a black musician, in the court. So it wouldn’t have been strange for black women, black people, to be in Scotland working in the court already. Scotland was a very multi-cultural country even in that time, so they were part of this image that showed if you had black people in your court, or black people alongside royalty, that you were ‘trendy’, ‘fashionable’, and ‘forward-thinking’. So, it was all beneficial to have a multi-cultural country and court. And Ellen’s character is very much respected – until the end!’’
What about your character drew you to her? Can you describe her in three words?
‘‘Ok, I’ll do three words and then I’ll go into it: unapologetic, open, and a survivor. I was drawn to her because of her strength. She goes through a lot in the story, she loses everything more than once, everything that she cares about she’s lost at the start of the play, apart from Anne. And she loses Anne bit by bit as the show goes on, and yet she still keeps climbing and holding on to what she can. So, I just think she’s an incredibly brave person. To be thrust into this environment, where everything is foreign to her, and then her one grounding is taken away, and what does she do but opens herself up, opens up her soul to these new people in the hopes that they will take that and find it valuable and use it, and they do! So, really that’s what drew me to her. She’s just an incredible person, and she thrives in every situation.’’
Would it be fair to say the play has a feminist angle?
‘‘Yeah, I mean, the main, female characters in the play, Ellen, Anne, Dame Phemy, Queen Margaret, they’re all, I think that their stories are given a lot of light where they maybe wouldn’t have historically. When we think about women in medieval times and even more recently, it’s always seen as the mother or the wife, and their stories are quite diminished. But Ellen is sort of the narrator of the show. She introduces it to the audience, and takes them in, so we know from the start that this is being told from her perspective, from a woman’s perspective.
And Queen Margaret as well, historically, there’s been a lot written about her and what she went through. And yeah, I mean the answer is yes, it’s definitely from a feminist perspective, and these women being richer and more complex than what is written down on paper, and every character is that way, but especially I think it’s important that we see that these women had full lives as much as the men that made history.’’
How much research went into your character and the play as a whole?
‘‘Yeah, I didn’t know anything about Moorish Spain, or anything about Muslims living in Spain for 700 years, longer than Catholics have been here today. I was learning a lot about that. I found it useful because our characters, when you first see them, they’re in Scotland, so they already bring like a lot, their whole lives, and their whole experiences before the play starts, so I needed to flesh that part out a bit more. So yeah, just researching about the culture and music, watching documentaries about the history of it and just to learn what their lives would have been like before they got here.
Also, asking Rona, our writer, a billion questions because she’s very knowledgeable about all of it, as you can imagine. So yeah, it was more just historically learning what life was like for them, and also my character’s the attendant of Lady Anne, and so I was learning about what that was and what that meant, and it meant that when they would travel together, Ellen would take care of Anne, she’d wash her hair, bathe her, clothe her, and then Anne would take of the royal children. So, she was like the servant of a servant in a way, and just learning what that status was. Yeah, that was mostly the research that I did.
In terms of plot, I think, for me that’s more like where the imagination comes in as an actor and just using imagination a lot more to help tell that story, really. And yeah, the rehearsal process, that’s where that really was fleshed out, in building our relationships with the other characters in the play as well, and doing that collectively, that was definitely needed.’’
What about a story steeped in the history of 16th-century Scotland will resonate with a modern audience?
‘‘It is a story about us, it is our history, this country’s history. And our identity as a nation is built upon what we know about ourselves from years gone by. And when parts of this history are omitted from education, we get a false sense of who we are and where we’ve come from. And what I think Rona – like, I’m so grateful for this woman – what I think she’s doing so well is saying we’re a lot more than what we’ve been taught about ourselves, and we’re a lot more complex than what we’ve been taught about ourselves.
For me personally, as a woman who is Scottish, but also Nigerian, Anglo-Indian, Portuguese-French, who identifies with different countries and nations within her but still fully Scottish, it’s validating, it confirms that I belong in this country, and that I’ve not just arrived here as a second-class citizen. It’s so deeply rooted in how we treat each other, and learning how we treat each other, and learning who’s welcome in this country now based on who we welcomed in the country back then. For me, that’s what I’d say is resonant to today, because we’re still in that cycle of questioning who belongs here and who should get to live and work here. Yeah, who gets to make those decisions as well. I think that’s just a full circle.’’
If anyone’s uncertain about coming to see the play because they’re not sure it’s for them, what would you say to change their mind?
‘‘So, the first thing I would say is that it can be a bit daunting to see a history play advertised. Because it’s a history play, I was a bit nervous coming to it that I wouldn’t understand a lot of it and what was going on, but Rona’s written it really colloquial, and it’s modern and it’s pretty much how we speak today so it’s a lot easier to follow along then say the Shakespeare histories. And there are lots of really cool fight scenes in there as well, so there’s a lot of action, like really amazing action, amazing fight choreography with swords and axes, there’s just a lot visually stimulating, that’s exciting and thrilling. There’s also romance, and there’s a beautiful love story, many beautiful love stories all intertwined in the plot. Yeah, so I’d say the attempt is that everybody will get something out of it.’’
Featured Image Credit: Capital Theatres
BA (HONS) English and MA Modern and Contemporary English Literature and Criticism graduate. MLitt Publishing Studies student. Passionate about anything arts-related, fascinated by pop culture, and expert compiler of personal TV-dramas-to-watch-I-won't-ever-get-round-to-actually-watching list.