The James Plays. This trilogy of new history plays - a genre that's definitely back in fashion at the moment - looks at the first three King Jameses of Scotland, beginning right in the middle of the period Shakespeare looked at in his own English histories. At the start of James I - The Key Will Keep The Lock, Henry V (Jamie Sives) rules England, but not for much longer: The dysentery that would kill him is taking hold. In an attempt to leave one less source of conflict for his infant son to rule over, Henry frees his prisoner, King James of Scotland, who's been held hostage in England for 18 years. In return for being returned to his throne, James (James McArdle) is expected to pay a hefty ransom, which Henry hopes will leave the country too poor to wander South of the border; but James has other ideas.
Refusing to pay the ransom, James attempts to unite Scotland under the lords' common interests. But having been king in name only for the last two decades, those who ruled in his stead are loath to give up their power, and his authority is challenged at every turn, particularly by his aunt Isabella (Blythe Duff) and cousin Walter (Andrew Rothney.)
The James Plays' scheduling just before and after the Scottish Independence Referendum has seen them inevitably viewed in the light of what they say about Scottish national identity, but the Scotland we see in James I is barely a country yet, and far from united. The feudal past is still very much in evidence as the lords define themselves by their land and how much of it they've got - an attitude that doesn't help James' attempts to enforce taxes. A lot of oaths get made and almost all of them get broken in a play always teetering on the edge of chaos and violence.
A more domestic story counterpoints the politics, as the strangely poetic (literally) James tries to make his arranged marriage with English noblewoman Joan (Stephanie Hyam) work; Hyam also has some fun scenes with Sarah Higgins as Meg, a Scots woman who's been given the task of acclimatising the queen to her new home, giving the play some moments of light relief. But there's little of that for the former regent Murdac Stewart (Gordon Kennedy,) whose attempts to make peace between the king and his side of the family keep backfiring catastrophically.
The plays are staged in the round, and I decided it'd be interesting to see each one from a different part of the theatre. So for the opening installment I went for the onstage seats, a bank of benches at the back of Jon Bausor's set. I was worried that, although close to the action, it might not offer the best view (they're advertised as restricted view) but apart from one corner of the stage that's obstructed the sightlines are decent, and Sansom's production is staged, if not 100% equally, with most of the action aimed at the majority of the audience (fair enough,) we didn't feel ignored on the onstage banks. It's an exciting viewpoint although after two-and-a-half hours the benches get pretty uncomfortable, so I won't be too sorry to return to the regular seating for James II.
James himself is something of an enigma at the start of the play - deliberately so, as he's been playing his cards close to his chest while in captivity. I'm not convinced McArdle has really illuminated him by the end of the story, but that aside this is a satisfying look not just at the first James Stewart but also at the beginnings of Scotland becoming a unified country, and Munro's storytelling gets a lot of history in without resorting to lengthy exposition.
James I - The Key Will Keep The Lock by Rona Munro is booking in repertory until the 28th of October at the National Theatre's Olivier (returns and day seats only.)
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.