EIF 2014: James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock, Festival Theatre, Review

Rating (out of 5)
Show info
The National Theatre of Scotland, the Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre of Great Britain
Rona Munro(writer) Laurie Sansom (director) Jon Bausor (set and costume designer), Philip Gladwell (lighting design), Christopher Shutt (sound design), Neil Bettles (movement director), Amanda Gaughan (associate director), Paul Leonard-Morgan (composer)
James McArdle (James I),Blythe Duff(Isabella Stewart), Peter Forbes (Balvenie), Gordon Kennedy (Murdac Stewart) , Andrew Rothney (Walter Stewart), MarkRowley (Alisdair Stewart), Cameron Barnes, (Big James Stewart),Jamie Sives (Henry V) , Sarah Higgins (Meg), Stephanie Hyam (Joan), Daniel Cahill, Ali Craig, Nick Elliot, Andrew Fraser, Alasdair Macrae, David Mara, Beth Marshall, Rona Morison and Fiona Wood.
Running time

Rona Munro, with help from a veritable army of staff from NTS and NTGB plus a cast of actors and musicians with fushion as their collective middle name, has created a well-researched, if irreverent, version of a little-known part of 15th century Scottish history.

The first in a cycle of three plays collectively entitled The James Plays, James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock dramatizes a part of the life of this young Stewart king who was a poet, lover, fighter and lawmaker.

Captured aged just 13, he became King of Scots while in an English prison. Eighteen years later he is delivered back home to an impoverished Scotland with a ransom on his head and the prospect of a marriage to a young English noblewoman, Joan Beaufort.

He has had plenty of time to consider how he will rule but in his absence the throne was kept warm by cunning family noblemen whose interest in retaining their land held dangerous sway over gey near anything else. James has to adopt their ruthlessness for him and his queen to survive.

In his short 13 year reign, a time shorter than his imprisonment, he set the monarchic tone of implementing the principle of “[neither] fraud nor favour” while simultaneously seeing himself as the embodiment of Scotland.

Some events and characters have been invented; others have been altered or simplified to clarify the narrative but broadly primary historical sources have been used. Munro is acutely aware that the words people in the past actually spoke in their daily lives can only be guessed at so her use of contemporary Scots with its conspicuous lack of deference can be read as a nod to a Scots sense of democracy. Though whether James l would have had his Scots tung after 18 years in an English jail is a small but questionable point yet may also stand for his having retained his Scottish sensibilities such as his enlightened sympathy to farming and farmers.

This narrative driven piece achieves what Munro set out to do by being utterly human while showing a world of cold plotting and bloody treason in the pursuit and the holding of power told in Scots voices of now.

The action uniquely takes place in front of one hundred on-stage seats built in the style of choir stalls that face out to the rest of the auditorium forming an observing “people’s parliament” that overlooks the courts of the three Jameses: a physical metaphor that the ordinary population is present but invisible to the shenanigans of royal circuses.

In a truly magnificent set silently dominated by a giant sword, the cast swaggering in sartorially splendid costumes to the sounds of dynamic music, this tale of royal restitution is the result of an amalgam of an array of talents.

The genuine pleasure on faces of cast as they took their many bows is testament to their proud part in bringing together this fierce and colossal undertaking. Talk about setting the heather alight. This play is ablaze!

10 to 22 August 2014
Times vary, £12 - £35

The James Plays, Three new plays about James I, II and III of Scotland, will show at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London from 10 September to 29 October 2014