Review James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock, National Theatre
Rona Munro's trio of James' Plays kicks off with the Scottish King James I (James McArdle) a prisoner of Henry V (Jamie Sives). Captured as a child, he's been held for 18 years by the English monarchy, sometimes fighting on their side. It is one such battle against the French and Scots that Henry humiliates James in front of his countrymen.
The play follows James' return to Scotland, after the death of Henry, with an English wife who doesn't love him as he tries to persuade his people he is worthy of his title. Munro's script and Laurie Sanson's direction has created a play superbly balanced between history, humour and humanity.
It is political but doesn't feel stiff. The Scottish court is less formal almost feral, the serving staff are outspoken and the power struggle between the ruling landed elite gives it a tense and dangerous edge. Murder is a tool for career, power and wealth advancement.
King James is the heart of the play. McArdle's King is gentle and pragmatic next to the cockily confident Henry and Scottish noblemen. Henry leaves James an almost impossible task to rule in the face of great prejudice and mistrust with few resources but he has used his time in the English court well learning from Henry's successes and his mistakes.
Joan is young, practical, in a foreign land and a situation that scares her. James is a poet, romantic, unwaveringly faithful and desperate to connect with her on more than a practical level. There are some beautifully observed awkward moments between the two. For all his cleverness and political skill he is still vulnerable to human emotion and feels his situation keenly.
James I kicks the James Plays off in fine style, it feels more historical than the other two (reviews coming soon) but a protagonist you can get behind, one with heart and soul makes this a gripping and exciting piece.
It runs in rep with James II and James III at the National Theatre until the end of October. Each is a standalone play and can be viewed as such but having seen all three in one day I would urge you to do the same. The three back to back are a feast of theatre and a monumental achievement for all involved which you only fully appreciate in seeing them in quick succession. Each is different in tone and execution but there is a continuity of characters, plot and little jokes that give a deeper context.
Aim is to get a connection with each of the Kings and James McArdle is an easy one to start with as he was in the Emporer and Galilean with Andrew Scott who has worked with Mr W several times and also occasionally pops to the theatre with him