For the fifth instalment of the James Plays series, Rona Munro, Raw Material, and Capital Theatres take their audience outside the royal court of James V, centring their attention instead on the (fictional) love and lives of two young Scottish women. 

After her brother, Patrick (based on the real-life Lutheran Patrick Hamilton), is executed for heresy, young Katherine Hamilton’s loyalty to her kin finds her own life on the line as she refuses to recant her faith. As she awaits her fate, Katherine’s repressed feelings for Jenny, her newly-widowed sister-in-law, creep to the surface – with both women ultimately facing a choice as to how they want to live their lives in these uncertain times.

Those who were lucky enough to see James IV: Queen of the Fight two years ago may be surprised to see that James V: Katherine is rather scaled-back production-wise. The grand space of the Festival Theatre is swapped for the far more intimate (though still packed) Studio. The stage is outlined by the warm glow of candles, with a wooden bench the sole fixture onstage. What’s also been switched up is the costuming, with early modern clothing being substituted for what can perhaps be best described as a 90s goth fashion. These aesthetic choices very much achieve Munro’s goal of keeping the series’ narratives fresh; while also complementing the story of two young women on the periphery of society wishing to live life, unapologetically, as themselves.  

A force of nature, Katherine Hamilton – performed here by Catriona Faint – appears at first as a woman who carries herself with pride and confidence. As is to be expected within Munro’s writing, there’s a great deal of humour diffused within the script, and Faint in particular revels in these moments. And yet, while often cutting or crass, it’s when she’s at her most vulnerable that Faint shines. The emotions expressed as she grapples with her feelings for Jenny will be relatable to many audience members, reminding us of the timelessness of love and heartbreak. While the play may focus on Katherine, it is Alyth Ross as Jenny who is the real heart and soul of this story. Despite her lack of an education, Jenny is the one who questions the teachings of God and why a woman like herself should be considered unnatural. Her defiance towards God and her King to protect the person she loves, all the while risking her own life, is what really tears at your heartstrings. 

With the eponymous monarch still absent at the one-hour mark, James V: Katherine feels somewhat like a side quest within the James Plays saga. However, his presence is felt immediately as Sean Connor returns to the stage in a rage-filled performance that is captivating from start to finish. To see Katherine’s formidable nature dissolve as her intimidating second cousin taunts her future is unsettling to watch. While his appearance is only brief, it is extremely effective in capturing a pivotal moment in Scottish history, foreshadowing the wave of radical changes the Reformation was set to create.

Despite Connor’s memorable performance, something has to be said for the doubling of the male roles within the play. Little distinction is made between Connor’s characterisation of James and the (cruel but comedic) Constable who arrests Katherine, which initially takes away from the power of his performance. The same can be said of Benjamin Osugo’s portrayal of Patrick Hamilton and John Spence. Osugo’s stress and the cadence of Patrick’s dialogue is bewildering at times, though it somehow works with Spence’s ordering of the ecclesiastical court. It’s odd that director Orla O’Loughlin didn’t encourage either actor to separate their roles. 

When imagining queer stories within history, there is always a risk of falling back onto tropes or clichés. As the play rapidly approaches its climax, you would be right to fear that this story is bound for heartbreak. Yet, James V: Katherine ends instead with a sense of hope. It is a sweet and understated ending that perfectly encapsulates the tenderness of Katherine and Jenny’s story. With the great James VI (& I) and his mother, Mary, surely in Munro’s sights, it’s a wise choice to pause and step away from the spectacle and splendour of the royal court for something more intimate but equally rich.