The James Plays

At the Olivier at the National

Reviewed by Louise Kingsley

Unless they’ve been brought up north of the border, it’s highly unlikely the average Brit will know anything much about 15th century Scottish history.  Rona Munro’s ambitious trilogy The James Plays (directed by Laurie Sansom) aims to rectify this in a trio of enjoyable, occasionally brutal, often light-hearted, stand-alone plays following the fortunes of three successive monarchs all named James.

In The Key Will Keep the Lock a dying Henry V of England finally releases a 29 year old James I after holding him prisoner for 18 years. A gentle, unworldly writer of poetry, James McArdle’s inexperienced monarch has to learn – at a cost – the requirements of kingship in order to quell the barbarically rebellious sons of the Regent (Gordon Kennedy) who are determined to hold on to every square inch of their land.

The slightly less focussed Day of the Innocents sees a 6 year old James II on the throne following the assassination of his father. Portrayed as a puppet in flashbacks to this violent act, the nightmare-plagued king is later caught between the power struggle of the keepers of Stirling and Edinburgh castles and, as an adult, influenced by Mark Rowley’s waywardly hot-headed and ultimately defiant William Douglas – until he, too, finally asserts himself. .

Lastly, in The True Mirror, James Sives plays a flirtatious, swaggering James III with little interest in his royal responsibilities. The mood here is lighter and centuries more modern – with music and costumes to match – though the enormous sword that dominates the stage throughout still remains.

In all three, the wives feature strongly. English noblewoman Joan (initially delighted at the match, then disillusioned by the bleak reality of life surrounded by feudal lords) and James II’s Mary are both impressively played by Stephanie Hyam, and (forsaking her trademark jumper for regal robes) The Killing’s Sofie Grabol proves she’s every bit as compelling on stage as on screen as Margaret of Denmark, long ago a bride at 12 and now, living apart from her spouse, taking charge of her adopted country.

If you can only get to see one, then plump for the first. But all three plays in this co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland are well worth catching – a sort of Scottish Shakespeare for the 21st Century combining the political, the historical and the personal with humour and insight.   

Olivier at the National

South Bank,  SE1 9PX

Tube: Waterloo

Booking till 29 October

£15 – £35 per show