James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock

Aug 12 2014 | By More

★★★★☆  Historic

Festival Theatre Sun 10 – Wed 20 Aug 2014

The high energy and dramatic power of James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock brings history into sharp focus and provides a fitting start to Rona Munro’s trilogy: the James Plays.

James McArdle (James I). Photo: Manuel Harlan

James McArdle (James I). Photo: Manuel Harlan

This collaboration between the National Theatres of Scotland and Great Britain for the International Festival certainly does not appear to be lacking in resources or ambition. This is demonstrated by an elaborately constructed set, complete with a twenty-foot sword in the middle of it.

The writing clearly does not lack courage, either, as is demonstrated by the immediate appearance of Henry V of England, instantly calling to mind that other writer of history plays whose name we shall not mention.

This Henry is much more foul-mouthed than might be expected – a trait shared by James McArdle’s James I. He, like the other Scottish characters speak in a way that is recognisably modern and Scottish, which speaks of the confidence behind the project and lays to rest any fears audiences may have had about understanding the language.

a swagger and a confidence

This is probably the most conventionally structured of the three plays, being a relatively straightforward historical drama dealing with James’s return to the Scottish throne after years of captivity in England, his struggles to impose himself as monarch, and his relationship with his English bride Joan.

McArdle provides a nuanced and subtle portrait of the reluctant, conflicted king, and is well supported by Stephanie Hyam’s piqued, vulnerable Joan, who provides a necessary counterpoint to the noise and gravel of much of the proceedings. Gordon Kennedy and Blythe Duff, as the displaced Regent Murdac Stewart and his wife Isabella, are the pick of the strong supporting cast, Duff bringing a particularly chilling focus to the resentful wife and driven mother.

Director Laurie Sansom and his team oversee a whirl of movement from the 20-strong ensemble, whether they are dancing, fighting or drinking. Aside from utilising Jon Bausor’s impressively constructed stage to the full, use is made of other parts of the auditorium, while the onstage ‘people’s parliament’ section of the audience provides a further dimension.

There is a swagger and a confidence to the whole affair that creates a strong impression. Even though there is a definite feeling of ‘to be continued’ at the close, this could easily be seen on its own and still satisfy.

Running time 2 hours 40 minutes including interval
Festival Theatre , 13-29 Nicolson St, Edinburgh EH8 9FT
Tues 12 and Tues 19 Aug at 7.30 pm
Sun 10, Sat 16, Sun 17 and Wed 20 Aug at 12 noon
Tickets from http://www.eif.co.uk/2014/james1

On Tour to London:
The Olivier Theatre,  National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX.

Wed 10 Sept – Tue 28 Oct 2014
Various times
Details on NT website: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/james-i-the-key-will-keep-the-lock

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