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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The James Plays (The Key Will Keep The Lock, Day Of The Innocents, The True Mirror)
Olivier Theatre  Autumn 2014

A trilogy of plays on Scottish history represents epic ambition on the part of playwright Rona Munro, and it is very much to her credit, to director Laurie Sansom and to this co-production by the NT, the National Theatre of Scotland and the Edinburgh Festival that, occasional cavils aside, it is such a success. 

The three full-length plays are performed separately or on the occasional marathon day and, like Shakespeare's history cycles, can be appreciated as epics, history lessons and individual personal dramas. 

Scottish kings James I, James II and James III ruled during the same period that Shakespeare's Wars Of The Roses were going on, and just as English cousins were killing each other for the crown there, the three Scots found themselves living essentially the same adventure. 

Coming to the throne as children, each James had to learn very quickly that there were few among his nobles who weren't rivals for his power and that being king virtually required killing off some cousins. In the process of eliminating enemies each created more enemies, and each was eventually assassinated. 

Each play, then, has a built-in rise-and-fall structure, and seen together they make the clear point that, at least at that time and place, individual personalities were irrelevant, the very different father, son and grandson playing out variations on the same tragic drama. 

Though nominally King of Scotland, James I spent most of his childhood and youth a prisoner to Henry V of England, and The Key Will Keep The Lock opens with Henry making the tactical decision to free him in the hope that a tame king will keep the Scots from harassing the English. 

Much of the first act is comic as the young James (James McArdle) meets his English bride (Stephanie Hyam) on their wedding day and the pair shyly get to know each other while both acclimatise themselves to the rough culture and rough weather of Scotland. 

McArdle has a strong scene in which James introduces himself to the Scottish Parliament and demands their fealty, but the king soon learns that the only way to gain their respect is to get their fear first, and we watch the attractive young man become dark and hardened as he begins a reign of terror. 

The opening scenes of the second play, Day Of The Innocents, are largely dream sequences as the young adult James II (Andrew Rothney) is haunted by nightmares of his father's murder, his mother's abandonment and his own virtual imprisonment by one Scottish lord or another as they wielded power in his name. 

Meanwhile the ambitious Earl of Douglas (Peter Forbes) is amassing land and power, largely by marrying off his large brood to rich neighbours. So it becomes sadly inevitable that when James finally begins to assert his independence as king, he will come in conflict with the Earl's son and heir (Mark Rowley), who happens to be his best friend. 

Once again a James can only insure his place as king by betrayals and murders, though in this play the focus is more on the young man's growing up and discovering his strength than on the dark irony of the means. 

The third play, The True Mirror, is the weakest of the three through a combination of unsympathetic hero and diffuse structure. 

For no clear reason director Laurie Sansom chooses to do this one in modern dress, setting it within the frame of a village fte with the cast dancing to contemporary numbers like Born That Way rearranged as Scottish folk songs (Don't ask). 

Unlike his father and grandfather, James III (Jamie Sives) is not introduced as an attractive young man but as a fully formed and quite unattractive adult, a self-indulgent sybarite (He's a wine snob and hires a choir to follow him around singing his praises) with little interest in the job of king, much of which he delegates to his sensible Danish queen (Sofie Grbl). 

The playwright makes very effective use of the historical fact that glassmaking advanced during this period so the characters encounter their first really clear mirror and thus see themselves accurately for the first time, but she also lets the play slide into soap opera when the queen encounters a rival and then abandons all pretence of historical accuracy as the queen rallies the Scottish nobles around her. 

And so, though James III follows the family tradition of betrayals and killings, the play quickly loses interest in him and shifts its attention to the queen, only to move on from her and ask the audience to transfer its identification and sympathy to the young James IV-to-be. 

If all three plays are memorable more for individual scenes or characterisations than as wholes, the same can be said of Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy. The James plays certainly benefit from the cross-references and resonances of being seen together, but if you must choose, the first is most satisfying if seen on its own.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The James Plays - National Theatre 2014  
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