There’s the feel of a gladiatorial arena to the staging of Rona Munro’s trilogy of James Plays, not least because some audience members seated on a raised area above the stage, looking down on a giant sword thrust into the saltire that covers the floor.
Munro’s sizzling script is finely directed by National Theatre of Scotland’s Artistic Director Laurie Sansom
James I spent many years as a “guest” of the English king, Henry V and the action opens just before he returns to Scotland to take back the throne from his uncle, Murdac Stewart. Deals have been made and yet, even though James appears soft and English, he soon proves himself tougher than expected. Treachery ensues.
Steven Miller’s lithe portrayal of the displaced king is absorbing and he brings tangible frustration to his relationship with his wife Joan, played with ditzy Desperate/Stepfordness by Rosemary Boyle. Regents Isabella and Murdac Stewart (Blythe Duff and John Stahl) convey people who would do simply anything to keep from losing land, title and status. And they do so with forceful intensity. Sally Reid’s Meg is an earthy, laughter rousing character who not so gently teaches the new queen a thing or two about her adopted people, though Meg and Queen Joan are more caricatures than characters.
The Key Will Keep the Lock is part exploration of Scottish national identity and part absorbing family saga, with much dirty dealing, subterfuge and intrigue. All of life’s emotions are crammed in – love, lust, fear, jealousy, passion, anger and brief happiness – witnessed at very close hand by some audience members. Munro has taken some liberties with history, and set and costume designer Jon Bausor has followed the lead of television historical fantasy drama (there is a man plait) with modern takes on Middle Ages style.
Still, Munro’s sizzling script is finely directed by National Theatre of Scotland’s Artistic Director Laurie Sansom, who draws out strong performances from his cast. With some beautifully sung re-worked poetry of the time, truly exciting fight scenes and cracking one liners (particularly King Henry’s blunt description of what it is to be a king), the first part of the James Trilogy is a strong starter.