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  • Flora Gosling

Review: James V: Katherine (Tron Theatre)

Updated: May 9

The dwindling flame of a beloved series

Shakespeare is so revered it is a wonder why we have so few modern imitators. Although I have not had the privilege of watching Runo Munro’s renowned trilogy The James Plays, if her late addition to the series James V: Katherine is anything to go by this may be the closest we are ever likely to get. This is not Munro’s first late addition to the trilogy, but it is the first to receive a lukewarm reception, which raises the question: is this a series that has been milked dry? But that leaves me comfortably ignorant. I can enjoy Katherine on its own terms, free from comparison.

 

Well, not quite. Even without thinking of the rest of the series, Munro has drawn from well-known classic literature and from real Scottish history to craft this fictional narrative. Katherine Hamilton (Catriona Faint) is the sister of Patrick Hamilton (Benjamin Osugo), whose execution for heresy made him the first martyr of the Scottish Reformation. Upon learning of his death, Katherine feels compelled to defend his honour and stand trial for heresy herself when she refuses to swear her loyalty to the Church. Behind her bravado is her hidden love for her childhood friend and Patrick’s widow Jenny (Alyth Ross), whose romance is fictional. Antigone and The Crucible both come to mind in terms of family and honour, but drawing such inspiration only serves to highlight why those plays are so impactful, and why Katherine is not.

 

Critically, the audience has to appreciate the stakes. This isn’t to say that audiences must be familiar with the Scottish Reformation ahead of time; Munro’s script brings us up to speed impressively quickly. The language is modern but tries to incorporate both the levity and the occasional playfulness of a Shakespearean history. This is not a play that is desperate to make history edgy and modern but rather is trying to translate the feelings that would have been felt. It is not understanding the history that is the problem, it is the uneven tone.

 

Patrick’s death, pivotal to the entire plot, is delivered by a comedically rambling messenger (Sean Connor) while Osugo kneels on the floor under a red light and Katherine and Jenny gaze into the distance, horrified. Even though we were expecting this death, the announcement is so dismissive that you almost expect the rest of the play to be a bloodbath and for main characters to drop dead at any moment. Munro is not entirely to blame for this; director Orla O’Loughlin struggles to recognise which moments need heaviness and which need lightness. Later Katherine and Jenny recreate a game from their youth where they play quarrelling geese, a moment which sounds fun and flirtatious but is played with the serious expressions and dramatic music of a dual. It is the kind of play fighting one might expect from a romance between closeted male characters, the kind of tension audiences are enjoying in cinemas with Challengers – but that dynamic does not translate easily to female friendship. Queering historical figures can be a beautiful twist and a way to reflect on the invisibility of women-loving-women relationships, but here the depth of their relationship feels false, even forced.

 

Though it is not for lack of trying on Ross and Faint’s part. Ross’s Jenny is sweet yet feisty; even as the character with the least to say, she always makes her presence felt. The same can’t be said for Osugo, who is terribly stiff as both Patrick and later as a priest. Arguably the best on stage is Connor, who in addition to playing the oddly upbeat messenger gives a stand-out performance as the teenage king. His James has a violent presence – a character with more power than purpose but instead of making him languid, it makes him sadistic. He and Faint have a similar intensity that suits their characters. In Faint’s case it occasionally results in overacting but as the performance reaches its climax, and Katherine must choose between her morals and her love, she plays it just right. 

 


Photo Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic


But just as her feelings for Jenny are hard to buy into, so are her convictions. She admits she didn’t love her brother’s words of reformation enough to accept the same fate which, if taken in a different direction, has potential. With a more subtle hand, Murno could have explored Katherine’s emotions about being torn between duty to follow her brother’s footsteps despite her reservations or pursuing her love despite its forbidden nature. It would add a layer of identity crisis to proceedings. But the writing, the direction, and the performances are all too passionate for such a thing to be possible. Rarely is passion, especially so convincingly sold, an unwanted thing, but in the case of Katherine: James V it leaves the performance blazing with feeling but in want of reason. Three stars.


Whispers from the Crowd: "Excellent. Incredibly well acted. It was compact, but you really get drawn in. We saw James III and IV, so it was nice to see the differences."

James V: Katherine has completed its run at the Tron Theatre.


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