Theatre reviews: James V: Katherine | Ness

The fifth instalment in Rona Munro’s James Plays series is delivered with pace, clarity and energy, writes Joyce McMillan

James V: Katherine, The Studio, Edinburgh ****

Ness, Oran Mor, Glasgow ***

Queer theatre is on something of a roll in Scotland just now; and nowhere more so than in Rona Munro’s brief but powerful new play James V: Katherine, the fifth in her series about the Stewart kings of Scotland, and those around them. Co-produced by the enterprising and excellent Raw Material of Glasgow, and by Edinburgh’s Capital Theatres, this latest play is set around 1530, when the first waves of Protestant Reformation were beginning to ripple through Scotland.

One of the first Protestants to be tried for heresy was young churchman Patrick Hamilton, a distant cousin of the king, who was executed by burning at St Andrews in 1528; and Munro’s play focusses on the story of his sister Katherine, who – after her brother’s death – was herself taken to Edinburgh and tried for heresy in front of James V, before eventually recanting, and making her escape across the border.

Hide Ad

The scene is therefore set for the dramatic tale of a strong young woman moved to assert both her own freedom of thought and that of her brother; but also moved by some other force to choose life rather than death. History gives us only the bare bones of Katherine’s story; but Munro shapes it into a love story, in which Katherine chooses life because of her love for her young sister-in-law Jenny, Patrick’s widow, and her yearning to live with Jenny in freedom.

As ever, in the James plays, the detailed texture of the writing sometimes fails to measure up to the themes in hand; where Liz Lochhead in the 1980s seemed able to reshape a living modern Scots full fit to encompass the whole range of human experience, Munro generally uses it with a light touch, and sometimes drifts towards the stereotype of Scots as a language best spoken in rage, aggression or defiance.

Yet in Orla O’Loughlin’s beautifully-shaped production – played out on a superbly simple lamp-lit set by Becky Minto – the cast deliver the play with a pace, clarity and energy that rivets the attention, and wins roars of applause from the audience. Catriona Faint’s Katherine is awkward, rebellious, brusque, and compelling; Alyth Ross as Jenny matches her with a quieter, down-to-earth strength. And Sean Connor, as the teenage king, is a startling and electrifying mixture of urban street thug and wily monarch; in a show – beautifully lit by Derek Anderson – that always occupies the stage with a memorable force and confidence, and an elegance that delights the eye.

Catriona Faint and Sean Conor in James V: Katherine PIC: Mihaela BodlovicCatriona Faint and Sean Conor in James V: Katherine PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic
Catriona Faint and Sean Conor in James V: Katherine PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic

At Oran Mor, meanwhile, playwright Hannah McGregor’s debut Play, Pie And Pint drama Ness, presented with Sanctuary Queer Arts, unfolds the matching tale of a strange but life-affirming encounter between young Em – who is camping alone on the shores of Loch Ness after their mother took badly to the news that Em is now non-binary – and Nessie herself.

In McGregor’s play, though, Nessie is not the dreich grey blob familiar from much-disputed photographs, but a gorgeous creature swathed in sparkly turquoise drag queen robes, who has come to tell Em in no uncertain terms that We Have Always Been Here – meaning gay, trans and non-binary folk – and that all will eventually be well.

There’s not much more than that to McGregor’s play, as Em’s mother Heather turns up in search of her errant chlld, and gradually learns to see Nessie for herself. In Debbie Hannan’s production, though, the comedy is delivered with a beautifully light tough by Afton Moran as Em and Annie Grace as Heather; with Craig Hunter as Nessie attracting roars of approval from the audience, as he sashays around the stage with a joyful, seductive energy that defies both Nessie’s impressive bulk, and her thousands of years of history, in and around the loch.

Related topics: