Review: James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock, National Theatre

“I am the King of Scots. In 18 years I never forgot that”

The first of The James Plays – a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland, the Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre (of Great Britain) – James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock sets the tone for this Scottish history trilogy brilliantly. Rona Munro guides us in with the recognisable figure of Henry V of England but then unleashing upon us the little-known and little-explored early Stewart kings and the maelstrom of conflict that was the Scottish court.

The reason we meet Henry V (a wonderfully belligerent Jamie Sives) is that for 18 years he kept James Stewart a prisoner, humiliating him at every opportunity, and it is only after Henry’s death that James was able to negotiate a release to return to his own kingdom, albeit one that barely recognised or wanted him. From these inauspicious beginnings, we then see how he sets about ruling with an iron fist, finding that the only way to dominate the murderous noblemen is join right in the skulduggery.

James McArdle nails the portrayal of James I perfectly in all his full-throated duality – a consummate politician who thrives in the violent world of men but who is instantly awkwardly tongue-tied in the presence of the young woman allocated to be his wife, the English Joan; a man undoubtedly possessed of a decent humanity but pragmatic enough to know that it mustn’t stand in the way of statehood, as the seductive lure of power transformed the way the kingdom was ruled forever.

Stephanie Hyam’s Joan is another star turn as a woman for whom being queen isn’t quite what it cracked up to be as she finds herself in a hostile land with little support, her relationship with her husband always complicated. Laurie Sansom keeps the pace of the production pulsatingly high as history and politics intertwine in an always engaging manner and it makes for a powerful start to this trilogy which you can either see on separate nights or, for the hardier folk, can be consumed in one sitting in a much recommended triple bill.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £4 (covers all 3 shows)
Booking until 28th October

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