Review – The Key Will Keep The Lock – James Play #1 at National Theater

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A month or so ago I was reading the news from the Edinburgh Fringe, and in the midst of all of the lack of coverage of the Scottish Independence vote from the stage (the specific article said that people just became uncomfortable unless it was dealt with as a joke), I saw a mention of the James plays that utterly pulled me in. New theater about Scottish kings? I knew nothing about them, really (always looking to bone up a bit on my history), but then to make it all more attractive I read that these plays were (supposedly) really engaging – even though there were three of them? And there was going to be a transfer to London? I went immediately to the National Theater website and found space in my calendar for all three of the plays (fortunately on the Travelex $15 series). Unsuprisingly the two days when all three plays were being done in rep were all sold out – a taste, I guessed, of the word of mouth effect on these shows. Tickets secured, I did my usual thing of going into a media blackout so I could enjoy the plays as fully as possible.

At last the day of the first show arrived – when I would discover if I’d just made an expensive error of judgment. I had a sweet seat in the center stalls (love those preview prices), but I felt envious when I saw there was a whole bank of seats on the opposite side of the stage – almost the first time I could remember seeing the Olivier being used as a theater in the round. How did those people get to those seats? Were these going to be the great views? (As it turns out, while they had the pleasure/frustration the actors working among them -especially in the scenes involving the throne, which was right in the middle of this set piece – the action was 80% facing the front otherwise and I would not consider these good seats unless they were really cheap, as spending scene after scene craning all the way to the left or right or just watching people’s backs would be very irritating).

And then the show started, sound and fury galore, a four story sword poking symbolically out of the stage (it was generally quite bare except for the occasional table or bed). We were introduced to Henry V (Jamie Sives) and his long term prisoner, James (James McArdle, whom he has kept mostly locked up for some eighteen years. Henry has captured four lesser Scottish nobles – thick accents all around – whom he wants James to make an example of. But James (thicker accent, not sure how he would have kept it being locked up from the age of ten) has other ideas, about the rules of chivalry, which he wants to apply now. Henry instead decides to show James that he still has control over him, and can beat his “rule of law” with the rule of force, because James need to learn what a king must do … and that for him, what he must do is obey.

Thus we nicely have set for us in the very first the themes of this play; of James as a dreamer, of James the king, of James as a man whose psychology might just be a little twisted by the circumstances of his life. But in parallel with this story is not just the extremely human story about his relationship with Joan (Stephanie Hyam), the queen forced on him by Henry, but of the building of the Scottish nation … a historical situation made vibrant and breathing by the current independence vote. The question of Scottish identity and the relationship and difference between Scotland and England is so alive that I could practically see them as other characters in the room, with the audience responding amazingly strongly to the debate on sovereignty happening in front of their eyes, disguised as history, making it clear that the era we are living in is one in which history is being built … on the roots of ancient actions. Wow. I could only imagine what the impact must have been of The Crucible during the McCarthy hearings. It seemed so appropriate, given this, that people spoke this new play in a modern style (complete with swear words), because the words, sentiments, and emotions were those of today. This was not a history play or a history: it was a play about now.

And I loved it. I didn’t read the program notes because I didn’t want to lose any surprises, and I was practically bouncing at intermission waiting for us to get back in and get on with it. I was on the edge of my seat when Queen Joan was being threatened and laughed when her servant Meg (Sarah Higgins) told the courtiers off for bad table manners. This is the kind of modern theater that I love, excellent, confident story telling delivered by note perfect actors with a focus on human interaction and resonance beyond the play itself. I now think the price I paid for the three shows was an incredible deal and I can’t wait for my return next week. Who needs Wolf Hall: the James plays have actually delivered us living, breathing history that makes people care. Thank you, Rona Munro; job well done.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Wednesday, September 10th, 2014. It runs through October 28th and is already almost booked solid. Get your tickets now!)

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2 Responses to “Review – The Key Will Keep The Lock – James Play #1 at National Theater”

  1. National Theatre of Scotland Says:

    We’re tickled pink to hear that you enjoyed the first of the trilogy so much. Some of our team prefer sitting in the stalls but others are vociferous in their love of the on stage seating. We’re looking forward to what you make of parts II and III coming your way very soon.

  2. Review – Day of the Innocents (James play #2) – National Theater of Scotland at National Theater | Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl's London theatre reviews Says:

    […] week after seeing The Key Will Keep the Lock (James play #1), I was practically panting to get in to see James play number two, Day of the Innocents. I’d […]

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