Robert Tanitch reviews The James Plays at National Theatre/Olivier.
God bless Scotland. The stage is dominated by a huge sword, which rises statue-like from the ground and towers over everybody. A king’s primary job, if he is to survive, is to be brutal and kill everybody else before they kill him. Fathers, mothers, brothers, friends cannot be trusted. Kings do not have friends.
Rona Munro’s The James Plays, three plays about Scotland’s kings in the 15th century, work best as a trilogy; but if you only want to see one, then see the first, The Key Will Keep the Lock, which has a charismatic performance by James McArdle as James I, a poet and a wrestler, who struggles to tame the hooligan barons and be just and enforce the law.
Laurie Sansom’s co-production for the National Theatre of Scotland, the National Theatre and the Edinburgh International Festival is notable for its speed, its energy and its first-rate ensemble. The marathon day (we went in at midday and came out at 10.45) did not feel that long at all. I felt I was watching a Scottish classic.
Munro’s trilogy, Shakespearean in scope, is notable for its strong dramatic scenes and its humour. There is some delightful romantic comedy when James I meets his bride (Stephanie Hyam) for the first time at the altar.
James II (Andrew Rothney), a child, is a puppet-king in every sense; he also has a blemished face and suffers from nightmares. There is an excellent confrontation in the second play, Day of the Innocents, when his best friend (Mark Rowley) goads him into killing him.
James III (Jamie Sives) in the final play, The True Mirror (acted in modern dress), rules so badly that his Queen, Margaret of Denmark, has to take over the reins of government. Margaret is played by the Danish actress, Sofie Grabol, memorable in the Danish TV series, The Killing, and memorable here. Who would want to rule Scotland? she asks. It was a good question then and it’s a good question now. The James Plays are a major event.