James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock

This trinity of new plays by Scottish playwright Rona Munro are a timely study of nationhood, identity and the consequences of political actions. They’re also surprisingly educational, even to most Scots who know little more about these first three Stewart monarchs than anyone else in the UK. Yet, arguably, these men are the first links in a chain that would lead to the union of the Scottish and English crowns and, a century later, of the two countries’parliaments.

The play is very much about identity, and slipping off passivity; after 18 years largely held in Windsor Castle, James I the man realises he has to positively win the respect and fear, if not the love, of his rambunctious subjects.

Played to an extent “in the round” - some of the audience are seated high to the back on the Festival Theatre’s stage - all three plays are staged on a harsh, simple set that reflects the medieval country’s cold stone castles; everyone overshadowed by a giant sword which rises from the ‘ground’as a startling monument to violence and control.

Reflecting the period in which its set, the first words we hear are neither Scots nor English, but French; the action starts with a small number of Scottish nobles bravely taunting their English captors after a battle in which England’s sickly Henry V - surely a deliberate nod to that other writer of “history plays”, William Shakespeare - lost to the French. He calls them traitors, however; for he holds, as his “guest”their young monarch James I, captured at the age of 12 and now - 18 years later - about to be sent home to “give England its peace”with its troublesome northern neighbour.

The play is very much about identity, and slipping off passivity; after 18 years largely held in Windsor Castle, James I the man realises he has to positively win the respect and fear, if not the love, of his rambunctious subjects. As one character points out, however, “There’s a lot of royalty in Scotland,”not least the great families which had effectively ruled Scotland during James’s enforced absence.

James I’s main legacy to his successors would be the creation of a more assertive monarchy, and we see the bloody consequences of that on stage as James - his initial hesitancy and growing confidence portrayed strongly by James McArdle - ultimately destroys those who threaten his position. One can’t help by feel genuine sympathy for Gordon Kennedy’s Murdoch Stewart, the regent whose weary acceptance of what needs to be done is matched only by the waspish anger of Blyth Duff’s Isabella, who keeps just the right side of a certain Lady M of Shakespeare’s invention.

Significantly, for a play that’s so much about men, it is Duff’s Isabella who gets the final word; and they bode ill for James. “The wheel turns”, she says; and, if you’ve read the notes, you’ll know exactly how.

Reviews by Paul Fisher Cockburn


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The Blurb

Bold and irreverent storytelling explores the complex character of this colourful Stewart king – a poet, a lover, a law-maker but also the product of a harsh political system.

James I of Scotland was captured when he was only 13 and became King of Scots in an English prison. Eighteen years later he's finally delivered back home with a ransom on his head and a new English bride. He's returning to a poor nation, the royal coffers are empty and his nobles are a pack of wolves ready to tear him apart at the first sign of weakness. James is determined to bring the rule of law to a land riven by warring factions, but that struggle will force him to make terrible choices if he is to save himself, his Queen and the crown.

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