Rona Munro on the fifth instalment in her 'James Plays' series: 'it tries to capture a moment when Scotland stood on the brink of massive change'

Based on the true story of Katherine Hamilton and her 1534 trial for heresy, Rona Munro’s latest play continues her mission to give Scotland back lost parts of its history, writes Joyce McMillan

It was a decade ago, in the referendum summer of 2014, that the National Theatre of Scotland and the Edinburgh International Festival – with the National Theatre in London – staged the first three of Rona Munro’s James Plays, in a massive and thrilling production by Laurie Sansom. Few who saw it are likely to forget the swirling 20-strong cast, or the huge broadsword that plunged down through the middle of John Bausor’s set; and the show went on, after its Edinburgh Festival premiere, to tour to London, Canada, Australia, and beyond.

For Rona Munro, though – one of Scotland’s leading playwrights since the 1980s, as the writer of plays including Bold Girls and The Last Witch – the James Plays project was never only about putting Scottish history on stage in a scale that matched Shakespeare’s histories. It’s also about reconnecting audiences with a part of Scotland’s story that is often eclipsed by the dramatic events that preceded and followed it; and, in Munro’s own words, about “making hidden histories visible.”

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So in the fourth play of the series, James IV: Queen Of The Fight – produced in 2022 by Raw Material and Capital Theatres in association with the National Theatre of Scotland – Munro used powerful physical spectacle to explore the presence of people of colour at the court of James IV, through the experience of two female performers from North Africa, involved in presenting the king’s great royal tournaments and masques.

And now – working again with Raw Material, and with Capital Theatres – she offers up a relatively intimate chamber drama set early in the reign of James V, when the first stirrings of Protestantism we’re beginning to appear in Scotland, in response to the wealth, corruption and oppressive practices of the existing church.

The play’s heroine, Katherine, was the sister of Patrick Hamilton, Scotland’s first Protestant martyr; and the play is built around both the real historical event of her 1534 trial for heresy in front of the king in Edinburgh, and an imagined gay love story between Katherine and another woman, of the kind that was often unspoken in Katherine’s time, and would come to be reviled as abomination in the new Presbyterian Scotland.

“One of the great joys of creating these plays is the chance to work with some really brilliant historians currently remaking Scottish history,” says Munro, from her home in the Scottish Borders. “On this play, I’ve been working with Dr Amy Blakeway of St Andrews University, who is just brilliant on the whole period, and a tremendously down-to-earth and accessible speaker on the society and attitudes of the time. And then there’s the Scots language expert Ashley Douglas, who helps to guide me through all the texts of the period.

“Through this research, I’ve come to know the work of Marie Maitland, “Scotland’s Sappho”, who wrote in the middle of the 16th century, and produced some of the first surviving lesbian poetry since ancient times. Attempts have been made to query her authorship of her love poems, and to suggest that they must have been written by a man; but she clearly signed them, and meant them to be recognised as hers.”

Catriona Faint & Alyth Ross in rehearsals for James V - Katherine PIC: Niall WalkerCatriona Faint & Alyth Ross in rehearsals for James V - Katherine PIC: Niall Walker
Catriona Faint & Alyth Ross in rehearsals for James V - Katherine PIC: Niall Walker

In James V – Katherine, Munro has bound all these strands of inspiration together into a story which she describes as both simple – in the sense that it is a love story – and complex, in that to understand the characters, audiences need to grasp how strongly they are motivated by an idea, in this case the idea of religious change and reform.

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“There are no fights in this play, and no songs or dances,” says Munro. “Instead, it’s a conversation among four characters that tries to capture a moment when Scotland stood on the brink of massive change, and a reformation that would reshape everything, for better and worse; and I’m delighted that it’s being directed by the former Traverse director, Orla O’Loughlin, who is brilliant at this kind of drama, and creates a wonderful atmosphere in the rehearsal room.

“It also means a lot to me,” adds Munro, “that unlike the larger-scale James plays, this one is able to tour to smaller venues in communities like the one I live in, and to reach out to audiences there. I’m looking forward to that so much. When its comes to the final play of the series, James VI, I think I will probably return to the larger scale, if we can make that happen; but this one is more like my Mary Queen of Scots play [seen at Hampstead Theatre in 2022] and I really enjoy that variation in size and scale.”

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In terms of the original purpose of the James Plays – to try to give Scotland back a lost part of its history – Munro feels that however the plays themselves may vary, they are all absolutely meeting a need, so far as audiences in Scotland are concerned.

“I think people are hungry for this,” says Munro. “The response to James IV, for example, was so strong and positive I was really taken aback by it. People would come up and start apologising for their ignorance, saying they didn’t know anything about these aspects of Scottish history; and I’d be saying please don’t apologise – nobody knows about them, because they’re just not taught.

“So really, the success of these James plays has gone beyond anything I could have imagined, back when I started to work on them. I thought that I would be very fortunate to get three of them staged, never mind all five, plus Mary. And now – well, with any luck, I’m looking forward to the sixth James, Mary’s son; and for me, he is most definitely going to be the last.”

James V – Katherine is at The Studio, Edinburgh, from 10-20 April, with previews from 5 April, then on tour to Glasgow, Aberdeen, Tobermory, Inverness, Dunoon, Birnam, St Andrews, Stirling, Peebles and Melrose, until 1 June.