James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock

Scottish national pride takes centre stage in a spectacular display of robust, finely crafted theatre in which events drawn from the mists of medieval history are shown to be vitally relevant to understanding who we are today.

There is a message here for NZ politicians aiming to develop a sense of national identity as the show emphatically demonstrates that investment in the arts is a far more fruitful enterprise than indulging in a costly re-branding exercise.

Performed by the National Theatre of Scotland, the James Plays delve into the obscure 15th century history of Scotland's early kings but the action is presented with such clarity there is no need for a Google search.

Playwright Rona Munro uses modern idioms and her treatment of grand themes like love, loyalty and betrayal obliterates the boundary between the personal and political.

James I spent his formative years as a prisoner in the English court and his return to the Scottish throne with an English wife was part of a scheme to keep Scotland as a vassal nation - but James had other ideas.

His humanist vision of government based on taxation and respect for the law runs up against the fierce independence of unruly clans; Steven Miller's captivating performance makes us feel the young king's humiliation in being treated as outsider in the country of his birth.

The tensions between tribalism and a desire for nationhood are brilliantly encapsulated in John Stahl's nuanced performance as the Regent, Murdac Stewart, who must step aside to accommodate the new king. At the heart of the story is a contemporary romance that speaks of the fraught but always intimate relationship England and Scotland.

The King's English bride, played by Rosemary Boyle, is eager to please but she is a practical girl who has little time for her husband's heartfelt notions of romantic love.

The show has been unwisely compared to Game of Thrones and while the script does not shy away from the ruthless brutality of the medieval world there is none of the lingering fixation on acts of cruelty.

James II: Day of The InnocentsJames III: The True Mirror

In the second and third parts of the James Plays trilogy we see Scotland making an agonizing transition from a seething maelstrom of clan rivalry to the elegant decadence of a Renaissance court.

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For the boy king James II, the Day of the Innocents is a swirling nightmare of brutality, terrifying superstitions and incomprehensible conspiracies.

Director Laurie Sansom vividly expresses the viewpoint of a traumatized boy with frenetic choreography, thunderous percussion and haunting masks.

Amid the chaos Daniel Cahill draws us into the private world of a damaged child who finds solace in small acts of kindness and slowly rises above the viciousness that surrounds him by asserting the authority of his own personality.

The tragedy of the king's painful coming-of- age is revealed in his bond with the heir to the Douglas clan and Andrew Still's performance movingly expresses the intense need for friendship from a boy who is cruelly bullied by a callous, acquisitive father who is given an imposing presence by Peter Forbes,

With James III it is as if we leave behind a nightmarish vision from Hieronymus Bosch and are transported into a Botticelli allegory. Roses adorn the set, characters appear in luxuriant modern dress and sweet music fills the air - including a marvelous sing-along version of an 80's pop classic by The Human League.

In Matthew Pidgeon's striking performance, James III is a nihilistic libertine taunting his subjects with whimsical indulgences and epicurean fancies.

The business of running the state falls to his Danish Queen and Malin Crépin delivers a mesmerizing performance as she hold up a mirror to the self-inflicted misery of an ungovernable people who prize attitude above rational decision making.

At times the compelling narrative drive of Rona Munro's script appears weighed down by heavy-handed metaphors about mirrors revealing the truth but the vitality of the staging makes it easy to pass over these moments.

Whether sampled individually, or experienced in the eight-hour marathon of the full trilogy, The James Plays provide a vigorous testimony to the potency of historical drama.


Where: ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre

When: Until March 12.