James V: Katherine review – queer love in the time of the Scottish kings

<span>‘Emotional intervention’: Alyth Ross and Catriona Faint in James V: Katherine.</span><span>Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic</span>
‘Emotional intervention’: Alyth Ross and Catriona Faint in James V: Katherine.Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic

A dark stage is lapped by flickering candles. Here, four actors present six characters and, briefly, a chorus that introduces the action: the date is 1528; Scotland is a country with “One god, one church, one pope… Until, one day, it isn’t.”

James V: Katherine is the fifth of Rona Munro’s sequence of “James plays” set during the reigns of kings of Scotland. Her ambition is, the playwright says in a programme note, “to make invisible Scottish history visible”. In this instance, by placing a fictional queer love story centre stage and showing how religious puritanism “might have affected women and closed the door on any possibility of queer tolerance”. In a play that feels more like a work in progress than a finished drama, these issues are touched on but do not pulse the heart of the action.

The fulcrum of the piece is Katherine’s brother, Patrick Hamilton (Benjamin Osugo), the first Scottish Protestant martyr. We meet the siblings on the day of Patrick’s wedding (to Katherine’s childhood sweetheart, Jenny). Patrick’s elliptical references to his impending fate pass by the practical Katherine (Catriona Faint), something she bitterly regrets after she learns that he took six hours to burn at the stake, preaching until his last breath (an event gruesomely narrated by Sean Connor’s couthy constable).

Munro’s Katherine decides to defend Patrick’s faith in honour of his memory, not through her own personal conviction. She defies the constable, is arrested and tried. A cutting riposte to her Catholic accuser (mirror-imaging Patrick’s monovision and also played by Osugo) leads to a private conversation with James V (Connor); after which, Katherine recants. This is the event for which the historical Katherine is remembered. In Munro’s fiction, an emotional intervention by Jenny (Alyth Ross), pleading for love over ideology, is the crucial factor that precipitates change.

Related: James IV: Queen of the Fight review – Rona Munro’s knotty latest Stewart dynasty play

Uneven writing, coupled with unsubtle direction (Orla O’Loughlin), leaves the promise of Munro’s interesting premise unfulfilled.

On press night, the performance was halted for a half hour or so and the auditorium emptied after a member of the audience was taken ill. Theatre staff managed the situation promptly and effectively. The company responded with admirable professionalism. Greeted with cheers and applause by the audience, once our relative positions were resumed, the actors snapped back into the scene with, if anything, more assurance than before.