REVIEW: James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock, National Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

The National Theatre presents James I
James I. Photo: Manuel Harlan

James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock
Olivier Theatre
25 October 2014
5 Stars

How fitting, and delightfully symbolic, that in the year that Scotland votes to remain part of the United Kingdom there is a Scottish invasion at the National Theatre; a bloodless coup that provides the best dramatic spectacle the Olivier stage has seen in quite some time and shows, compellingly and directly, what Scotland has to offer England in terms of theatrical prowess and what England has to learn.

Now playing in the Olivier Theatre at the National is Laurie Sansom’s production of Rona Munro’s The James Plays, a set of three “historical” plays dealing with the reigns of the first three Scottish kings to bear that name.

James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock kickstarts the trilogy with a serious bang. The Olivier has been converted into a theatre in the round, and it works marvellously in that configuration. Jon Bausor’s exquisite design is inherently historic in feel, but modern in execution. In this it entirely reflects the language and sense of the writing and the playing. History hangs thickly in the air but everything feels fresh, exciting and uncharted.

A huge broadsword is planted firmly in the ground where most of the action occurs. It dominates everything, even the tenderest scenes of glorious intimacy, reminding always that violence and murder lurk just beyond the peripheral vision. There are entrances and exits throughout the auditorium, all of which are used for full value, and an upper platform on which sits a throne and underneath which a drawbridge can lower. The feel of castles, solitude, power and destiny is omnipresent.

The overwhelming sense is that they will sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings. Just marvellous.

The costumes are that funny fusion of old and modern, part Mad Max, part Firefly – but they work. There is an intensely medieval feel about everything which is heightened and reinforced by the truly excellent lighting design from Philip Gladwell. Things really do seem to be happening by candle-light in some sections and the sense of the Scottish evening and night light is carefully, beautifully captured.

Munro tells a fascinating and utterly engaging story and, happily, one where women play just as important a part as men. She deftly interweaves the tale of the young James I and his imprisonment by Henry V, with the real, delicately awkward, but ultimately profound, love between James and his assigned wife, Joan Beaufort and uses both to set up the transition of the young monarch from plaything of the powerful aristocracy to ruthless, ruling regent. It’s a love story and an historical thriller – and cracking good.

It feels quite Shakespearean, possibly because Henry V appears, but more because the language is heightened and evocative and the constant sense of important actions involving important people. It feels epic in every way. And given it is about a young king, considered incapable by the nobles on the kingdom, it shares themes with both Richard II and Henry IV. And, like them, James is quite an orator:

“Kneel to me because I promise you, and I will prove to you by everything I do now…I am Scotland. That Scotland will be small but it will be whole. It will be poor, but all it’s people will know their worth and know how to fight for it. It will be a tiny part of the world but it will know all the world knows. It will be assaulted but it will never be broken. It will make no quarrel where it isn’t provoked…but it will bend to no other nation on this earth. That is Scotland. That is who I am.”

Sansom’s direction ensures that everything moves along energetically but there are so many details along the path, so many treasures to enjoy, so much sumptuous activity to marvel act that often I longed for a pause and rewind button – just to enjoy it again, one more time. Neil Bettles is responsible for the movement and does an excellent job – there are no cod battle scenes here; everything is rigorously and vigorously done.

There is a marvellous sequence in the second Act of this play, where the scared, pregnant Queen Joan trembles as armies fight a balletic, vicious war all around her and the four poster she is hiding in. The ghost of Henry V appears and adds texture to the thoughts and determination of the young, unaccepted King James. The sense of love, memory and duty is keenly felt as the pageant unfolds onstage – and James’ triumph is all the greater for the magical way this is staged.

Sansom has assembled an extraordinary ensemble for these plays; all but a few of the cast are in all three plays. Almost everyone is better than perfect in their roles, whatever demands (size or breadth) are required of them.

Leading the company in James I is the remarkable James McArdle who is in the role of his career so far, a career that has included many highs. He is in exceptional form here, physically in top condition and with a voice that runs the gamut from lovesick poet to cold, dispassionate executioner. He has many outstanding moments over the course of the play, but, the standouts were his electrifying speech to the Scottish nobles (where he talked about the Bruce blood pulsing through his veins and his desire to make Scotland whole; a gargantuan speech, heroic and inspirational) and the scene where he coaxes his wife into understanding that she is in fact the love of his life, the woman he saw from his prison and for whom he wrote his famous The Kingis Quair. Classical acting at its very best.

He has sensational support. Jamie Sives proves a fascinating Henry V, not the champion we know from Shakespeare, but the nasty, bitter, dying King of England, desperately trying to hold his kingdom together. Sives is in tip-top form, vile and compelling all at once.

Stephanie Hyam is enchanting as Joan, the beautiful girl made to marry James by Henry. She is absolutely gorgeous, but also radiant, enchanting and full of life and verve. She is every bit James’ equal, and her scenes with McArdle crackle with ardour and desperation. The moment when they consummate the marriage is particularly affecting because of her plaintive submission, her willingness to give her all to make the marriage work – despite the fact that she, a virgin, is forced to endure the act in full view of the Scottish nobles, who like to see that their royal heirs are conceived by the right means.

Blythe Duff and Gordon Kennedy are absolutely wonderful as the power behind the throne, the rich Scottish nobles who think they and their kin can tell James what to do and how and when. Duff relishes the role almost as if she were the Alexis Carrington of medieval Scotland. The scene where she sits on the Queen’s bed and threatens her pregnant stomach with a casual knife thrust is spine-tingling. And Hyam’s revenge, as she enjoys Duff’s Isabella’s frantic terror about the executions of her sons, is quite delicious.

Kennedy excels as the old Scottish warrior who expects his will to be done, all wild hair and unkempt beard and a back of solid steel. His final demolition by McArdle’s assured monarch is beautifully done, as is the torrent of rage he unleashes as he learns of his impending execution.

Peter Forbes gives a nicely nuanced turn as Balvenie, a coward and member of the Douglas clan, who changes allegiances like the wind until he settles on supporting James – which only occurs after a hair-raising incident where one of the Stewart clan blackmails him into skewering James while he sleeps. He can’t go through with it and he turns against his blackmailer, ensuring James’ right to the throne becomes a reality accepted by all.

There is a truly delightful, and intricately detailed, performance from Sarah Higgins, as Meg, who spends her life in service to James, his wife and their offspring. She is just superb – and her railing against the excesses of the loutish Scots nobles wonderful to watch and enjoy; as are her long scenes with Queen Joan, precise renderings of important friendships, familial ties.

Each of the actors who play the violent and unruly members of the Stewart clan are excellent – there is so much physical dexterity, so much muscular language (both spoken and unspoken) that you are never in doubt of the time in which the action plays out.

Spare, visceral and gripping, this is an extraordinarily wonderful production of an important and difficult new play, which shines a light onto forgotten events and examines them in an entirely satisfying theatrical way. It leaves you desperate to see what happens next.

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