Saturday, May 25

James V: Katherine – The Studio, Edinburgh

How do you make a play about the Scottish reformation, set in 1527-28; playful, thought-provoking and above all very funny. Writer Rona Munro provides a master class in character writing, and humour in a fascinating historical setting in this superbly watchable addition to her James Plays.

Many will already be aware of Munro’s epic historical series comprising of seven works in total, six staged to date, which span two centuries of the house of Stuart between 1406 and 1603. This is part 5 of the series, but unlike all the others which have been grand in scale and staging, Katherine is a much more intimate four-hander chamber piece, which seeks to delve into the very minutiae of life, love and death.

The play is set in a time when the Catholic Church’s grip on Scotland is loosening, papal supremacy is being questioned. The period, which would become known as the Scottish Reformation, is starting and a new form of Christian faith labelled ‘protestant’ will come to fruition with extraordinary rapidity barely two decades later, led by John Knox, with Catholicism being officially outlawed throughout Scotland.

The story follows Patrick Hamilton, played by Benjamin Osugo, recently returned from Europe on the eve of his wedding to Jenny, played by Alyth Ross. Osugo portrays Hamilton as a quietly spoken serious man on the horns of a dilemma, who ultimately resolves to use his wedding speech to preach the new gospel of Protestantism even though he knows this will result in his arrest and very likely his death. Even with the pleading of his wife ringing in his ears he explains the logic that no earthly suffering can be worse than the pain of eternal damnation if he does not preach the ‘new truth’.

Hamilton makes his new wife promise that she will look after his little sister Katherine in the event of his death, a promise that she is only too happy to accept, unaware as he is that Jenny and Katherine already have ‘history’.

Katherine too is arrested for heresy when she refuses to agree that her brother was wrong and too looks doomed until her distant cousin James V intervenes.

Catrina Faint plays Katherine with a ‘fierce in yer face’ intensity when facing the powers that have executed her brother, then melts into the erotic love scenes with Jenny, which are all beautifully handled.

However, it is the electrifying performance from Sean Connor in the double roles of the Constable and an almost manic James V which really steal the show. Faultless delivery provides humour and menace in equal measure as the calculating king ruminates if Katherine’s death would act as a deterrent to future heretics or a rallying cry.

Munro’s queer dark humour, interlaced with moments of extreme tension, tenderness and theological philosophy sets this with a tone that lies somewhere between Blackadder and The Crucible. It is an odd mixture to be sure but not unsuccessful. The sustained use of colloquial Scots vocabulary gives this both a modern and a personal feel, and when we hear that The Pope is shitting it, it is certainly very funny. Likewise, as Katherine is propelled towards choosing her fate, we are carried along with the momentum of the edge-of-the-seat moment, will she die to honour the legacy of her brother’s name or cave in to save herself, or can she find a third way?

A play that succeeds on so many levels and leaves you thinking a long time after the lights dim. Anyone who thinks that this might be a stuffy historical reenactment, think again. Brilliant!

Reviewer: Greg Holstead

Reviewed: 11th April 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.