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The James Plays – James I: The Key That Shall Keep the Lock/James II: Day of the Innocents/James III: The True Mirror review at Festival Theatre

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In his first full directorial outing as artistic director of the NTS, Laurie Sansom slams his dagger into the table with a bold and pacy premiere of Rona Munro’s history plays, telling of the first three Kings James of Scots.

The dagger is more than metaphorical. Sansom has his designer Jon Bausor thrust an 18 foot blade into the playing area, itself flecked in faded saltire blue with rough paths worn across the diagonals.

The symbolism of that dagger emerges in James I: The Key That Shall Keep the Lock, when one of his many cousins does the same. He defies his king and demands a square go, a fight without weapons. For the newly crowned king of the Scots it is a trial of strength, standing up to the lords who have run Scotland while he was jailed in England for 18 years.

In Munro’s scheme over the three plays, as she compresses events and amalgamates characters, this is a square go between the rule of kings and the rule of the lords. Onstage seating rises up behind the playing area where the Scottish Parliament sits at such times as it is called. Audience members sit here too: a constant reminder that during the onstage battle the Scottish people are mere spectators.

As James I, James McArdle creates a wise king, concerned intimately with the affairs of his people. He attempts to prove he is his own man, not England’s minion, by ruling justly and wisely. Yet he is thwarted by the selfish acts of powerful men – their ambitions embodied by Isabella Stewart, Regent Consort, given a truly malevolent voice by Blythe Duff.

In James II, the Day of the Innocents, Munro gives voice to youth. Andrew Rothney’s James is haunted by the terrors which shaped his childhood witnessing the murder of his father. A ghostly puppet brings his memories to life with only his childhood friend William Douglas (the magnificently morphing Mark Rowley) able to bring him back to reality.

Munro’s scheme gives a big, foul-mouthed and demotic language to the first two plays, echoed by the crude handles that surmount the onstage blade. In James III: The True Mirror, however, all becomes refined and it is played out in modern dress.

The true mirror is Sofie Grabol’s carefully worked depiction of Danish Queen Margaret,  wife of Jamie Sives’ effete James III. It is her great sense which tempers the acts of a selfish king who is determined to fly close to the sun.

In 2006, Vicky Featherstone and John Tiffany brought Blackwatch to the Edinburgh fringe, stamping their mark on the future of the NTS. In this referendum year, The James Plays are Laurie Sansom’s square go, a loud proclamation that, whatever others may proclaim, he is his own man and the NTS will bring the political agenda to the table.

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Ruthlessly demotic and ambitious, Rona Munro's James Plays are given a pacy outing at the EIF