James I:

The Key Will Keep The Lock

Festival Theatre

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THE giant sword stabbed into the stage throughout this first part of Rona Munro's trilogy of fifteenth century Scottish history plays looks like a statement of intent, both in the ambition of Laurie Sansom's production, and in the grandiloquent sweep of what follows the rabble-rousing song that opens it.

Here we find James I thrust back into his kingdom after 18 years in the shadow of a bullying Henry V, who taunts and teases his captive, while James would rather defend his notebook full of verse than lead a country into battle.

Once a dying Henry marries off James to his cousin Joan, however, he is forced to become one of the lads, not just for his country's sake, but to impress his girl the way any boy would.

With the stage surrounded by a bank of seats where a section of the audience sits on either side of James' throne, Sansom's production for the National Theatre of Scotland, National Theatre of Great Britain and Edinburgh International Festival brings Munro's mix of political thriller and period romance to life with an epic panache and wit.

Public and private moments dovetail beautifully, with the goofy charm of James and Joan's wedding offset by the dark machinations of the Stewart clan.

James McArdle's James is a vulnerable figure who struggles to play the tough guy when all he wants is for Stephanie Hyam's Joan to read his poems.

By the end, however, he's more than merely playing the king.

James II: Day of The Innocents

Festival Theatre

IF THE first part of Rona Munro's trilogy of imagined history plays was an adventure yarn in excelis, this second episode takes a more macabre and psychologically subterranean turn as it explores the emotional disturbances of James II following his turbulent succession to the throne aged just six.

The first half of Laurie Sansom's production, set on the same bare stage as the first part, gets into the boy king's mind by way of a jumbled-up dreamscape of memory and imagining peopled by the brutal court that killed his father and young William Douglas, with whom he forms an alliance.

Here, James is personified all too appropriately as a puppet, seeking sanctuary in a wooden box as the world wages war on his legacy while a brooding electronic underscore pulses around him.

The bromance that blossoms between James and an arguably even more damaged and brutalised Will is only usurped when James finds his voice by way of his French queen, Mary.

The joie de vivre this gang of teenagers find mucking about playing football gives way to a second half driven by Will's increasing loose-cannon status. It's here that Andrew Rothney's James and Mark Rowley's Will fully get to let rip with Munro's rich and furiously contemporary dialogue.

The final rally between the pair more resembles a pair of Glasgow gangsters falling out than a monarch and his sidekick in a deadly display of wounded macho pride that stabs you in the heart.