James V: Katherine, The Studio at Festival Theatre, Review

Rating (out of 5)
Cast of James V Katherine, 2024, Sean Conor, Benjamin Osugo, Alyth Ross, Catriona Faint - picture credit Mihaela Bodlovic
Show details
Rona Munro (Writer), Orla O’Loughlin (Director), Becky Minto (Designer), Danny Krass (Composer/Sound Designer), Derek Anderson (Lighting Designer), Margaret-Anne O’Donnell and Gillian Garrity (Producer), Eve Nicol (Associate Director), Janice Parker (Movement Director/Intimacy Coordinator)
Catriona Faint (Katherine Hamilton), Sean Connor (Constable/James V), Benjamin Osugo (Patrick Hamilton/Spence), Alyth Ross (Jenny)
Running time

While the juggernaut musical Hamilton plays to packed houses around the corner - sharing the story of America's youngest Founding Father with modern aplomb - the studio space gathers a more intimate capacity audience to hear about a rebellious wee Scottish lass bearing the same surname, as Rona Munro takes a framework from the history books for a dramatic interpretation of events at the start of Scotland’s Reformation.

In 1528 early stirrings of reform meant the Roman Catholic church were treating any opposition as heresy and as punishment for his Lutheran preaching Patrick Hamilton (Benjamin Osugo) was burned at the stake. Katherine Hamilton (Catriona Faint), his sister and distant cousin of the king, defends his honour leading to her 1534 Edinburgh trial. We then dive into the rhetoric as history distils and the emotional heart of the play centres on two young women’s love affair as their realities splinter but connection endures. 

This is the fifth instalment in Munro’s James Play saga about Scotland’s Stewart kings but is a distinct standalone within the cycle, stripped back to offer a refreshing change in form from the more epically staged predecessors for an intimate exploration of relatable stories with dramatic licence to interrogate faith, politics, courage and love. 

Orla O’Loughlin’s direction is in contrast to Laurie Sansom who helmed the first four instalments, as minimalism hints at the period without being weighed down. The four actors remain on stage throughout,  joining the audience as witnesses to the unfolding action on Becky Minto’s dark, stark and versatile set surrounded by flickering candles, representing the embers of both danger and passion that enduringly smoulder.    

Adding to the tension is Derek Anderson’s shadowy lighting, focusing the eye on the action, and Danny Krass’ pulsing score marking the fundamentalist battle as a pragmatic, young, educated woman cannot commit to an intolerant church in favour of belief in freedom of thought.

Faint’s Katherine is bustling with energy and wit, in stark contrast to the pious delivery of Benjamin Osugo’s Patrick and prosecutor, Spence. She is impressive in the ecclesiastical court, inspiring James V (Sean Connor) to recess proceedings for a private discussion. The immature king is unhinged with a scary volatility that’s executed perfectly by Connor, swaggering with the tense brutality of an indulgent brat who expects obedience yet is still intelligent enough to realise his decisions and actions have utmost consequences. 

Completing the quartet of performances is Alyth Ross, in her debut professional role, who delivers an honest, plain speaking and brave Jenny. In a series of intimate exchanges, she centres the rambunctious Katherine as they grapple with personal and political freedom. 

Tyrannical views still have platforms in this increasingly fragmented modern world. Rather than accept historical recordings as truth, Munro effectively creates a timeless tale of loyalty and love which acutely highlights that who tells the story is fundamental to the view it presents. The true tales are the ones that didn’t make history. 

James V: Katherine is at The Studio at Festival Theatre until Sat 20 April. The run is sold out except for limited availability at the matinee performances, 2.30pm, Sat 13 and Tue 16 April (at time of writing). 

The production then goes on tour throughout Scotland, with more information available at www.capitaltheatres.com/the-james-plays-arrives-spring-2024 

© Lindsay Corr, April 2024