In a light-filled theatre space in Edinburgh, close to the Roxburgh Street flat where theoretical physicist Peter Higgs wrote his thesis about the so-called ‘God Particle’, four actors are re-winding time to an era when that sort of talk landed you in trouble.

We’re also just yards from the site of Kirk O’Field where a different set of particles – a barrel of gunpowder – did for Mary I’s resolutely unappealing husband Lord Darnley in 1567. But right now it’s 40 years earlier, the late 1520s. We’re in the reign of Mary’s father, James V, and we’re staring down the throat of the Reformation.

More specifically we’re in a spartan bridal suite where actors Benjamin Osugo and Alyth Ross, the second holding a bunch of fake flowers, are rehearsing a rather uncomfortable wedding night scene.

Watching on is director Orla O’Loughlin. “Eat first, then speak. You’re starving,” she commands as Ross and Osugo try to deliver their lines through mouthfuls of shortbread. Much is scoffed as they go once, then again and again, changing the scene incrementally each time as different things are tried. Seated at the edge of the stage are fellow cast members Catriona Faint and Sean Connor. In a moment they’ll rise and take their turn in a different scene.

The play under rehearsal is James V: Katherine, the latest instalment in an epic dramatic undertaking by playwright Rona Munro. Four previous history plays have already covered James V’s antecedents and royal namesakes and, a decade into the project, this fifth instalment, presented by Raw Material and Capital Theatres, turns on the life of mid-ranking noblewoman Katherine Hamilton. The suite has come to be known collectively as the James Plays. There being six Jameses, Munro clearly isn’t finished yet.

Connor and Faint play the titular characters, James V and Katherine Hamilton, a mid-ranking noblewoman. Osugo is Katherine’s brother, Patrick Hamilton. Ross is Jenny, Katherine’s friend and now also Patrick’s wife – though as he reveals in the scene being rehearsed, he has an ulterior motive for the match and does not expect to live long anyway.

The Herald: Rona MunroRona Munro (Image: free)

If you know your history, you’ll know he did not. An enthusiastic early convert to Protestantism, Patrick Hamilton was tried as a heretic and burned at the stake in St Andrews in 1528. He was 24 at the time. As a memorial – or a ghoulish reminder, depending on your viewpoint – there’s a PH inlaid at the entrance to St Salvator’s Chapel to mark the exact spot where he breathed his last. Katherine Hamilton, meanwhile, was also tried for heresy, but this time in front of James V who was impressed by her bearing and composure. She lived, but was later forced into exile.

From all of this, Munro has spun a drama which condenses historical events to highlight the speed of change in Scotland during the Reformation, and merges fact with supposition to also create a love story. Jenny and Katherine, you see, have their own secrets to deal with beyond their personal opinions on scripture and dogma.

“In Katherine what I’m doing is conflating two things,” Munro says when we speak. “One is I’m telling a story of a particular time in Scottish history, which is just before the Reformation, just before the entire nation slips from one view of theology – what we now call Catholic – into what we now call Protestant. It happens within a generation.

"But within that, and the stronger part of the narrative in a sense, is a queer love story. The reason I’ve pinned that onto the Reformation is that after the Reformation things got significantly tougher if you were queer within Scottish society. It was a much more puritanical version of theology that came in.”

The specifics of the affair, she admits, are “completely speculative” but “there’s no reason it couldn’t have been true … queer history became even more suppressed and repressed from that point on.”

Europe-wide, this moment in history is a pivotal one, of course. That’s particularly true in Scotland. Even today it’s hard to over-estimate the effect of the Reformation, and the ways in which the forces it unleashed and the power balance it disturbed continue to affect us.

“To understand contemporary Scotland you have to really do the Reformation,” says Munro. “The legacy of that is so live. I mean we are really living with the legacy of that in terms of sectarianism and everything, far more than we are with some of the other events which have been shown in the James Plays. So you have to understand where it came from, and from early on I knew this play had to be about the Reformation.”


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Condensing events into a shorter time frame adds drama, but even so she says “the speed at which religion in Scotland flipped is staggering. It was within a generation and the sense you get of that from contemporary accounts is quite dizzying … If you look at the origins of the tribal nature of sectarianism, it’s odd how that becomes a culture as opposed to a philosophical choice. It becomes what you are by birth rather than what you choose to believe. That happens so quickly.”

As for the James Plays themselves, their origins lie in what Munro calls the “mad ambition” she had to try to replicate Shakespeare’s great cycle of history plays and through that dig into Scotland’s backstory. She was inspired by having seen Michael Boyd’s staging of the complete works for the Royal Shakespeare Company, a three year project the director begun in 2005, a decade after he left Glasgow’s Tron Theatre. So she approached the fledgling National Theatre of Scotland (NTS), then run by visionary first director Vicky Featherstone, and basically said: ‘How’s about it?’.

“I wasn’t suggesting for a minute that I could achieve anything equivalent to that,” Munro laughs. “But I was very speculatively, and with no expectation of encouragement, going: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool?’ … I did even at the start go: ‘Well, there’s six King Jameses and Mary, so basically it’s seven Stewart monarchs.”

But Featherstone loved the idea and, in 2011, commissioned the first three plays, to be staged under the banner of the then high-flying NTS and directed by Laurie Sansom, who would take over from Featherstone as NTS head when she left in 2013.

The aim was to have them ready for a world premiere at the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), meaning that first salvo of plays were staged just a month ahead of the pivotal referendum on independence, an event whose result is still being felt in political life today. Did the timing have a bearing on Munro’s approach to her subject?

“If you’re asking about the political intention for the play – that’s political with a small ‘p’ – then for all of them it’s been about making invisible Scottish history visible, which in effect is all Scottish history because we’re not taught it, we don’t know it, it’s not part of a popular culture,” she says.

The Herald: Benjamin Osugo in rehearsals. Picture: Niall Walker Benjamin Osugo in rehearsals. Picture: Niall Walker (Image: free)

So no, she didn’t have a particular point to make. “I’m not that kind of writer, really,” she insists. “I’m a political writer in another sense, and always have been because my politics came up through theatre in the community and feminist theatre … [But] I do think it [the referendum] made an enormous difference to the desire to see them, and the hunger to see them, and the desire from the general public to be aware of Scottish history at that moment in their own history.”

But history being history – the place we go to better understand the present – there was plenty in the plays which did chime with people looking to make sense of the question soon to be put to them. The 2014 EIF programme notes even allude to the fact. “Each play stands alone as a unique vision of a country tussling with its past and future,” they read. “Viewed together they create a complex and compelling narrative on Scottish culture and nationhood.”

And you really could watch them all together if you wanted. For most of the run all three plays ran on the same day, beginning at noon with James I: The Key Shall Keep The Lock and going straight through until the end of the 8.15pm performance of James III: The True Mirror. Among the actors undertaking this gruelling feat were Blythe Duff, James McArdle, Jamie Sives and – bringing a splash of Scandi Noir glamour to proceedings – Sofie Gråbøl, Danish star of BBC Four smash The Killing.

So what kind of things did audiences pick up on? “There was a big monologue in James I that had a very particular resonance, because he’s describing in a sense the ideal nation of Scotland,” Munro recalls. “Then in James III there was another big speech from Queen Margaret, Queen of Scotland, in which she’s rebuking Parliament for not wanting to govern themselves and instead waiting on the king doing it for them.”


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The three James Plays toured internationally in 2016 and in 2022, completely out of sequence, Mary was staged at the Hampstead Theatre in London. A three-hander set in 1567 it starred Douglas Henshall as Mary I’s ally, diplomat James Melville. It has yet to be performed in Scotland.

In the same year, with Sansom again directing but with NTS now taking a back seat and production company Raw Material stepping in, James IV: Queen Of The Fight was staged. Where Katherine looks at queer history against the background of tumultuous political and social events, in Queen Of The Fight Munro’s female-centred storytelling examined another under-researched facet of study to show Scotland through the eyes of two Moorish women. The characters were based on research Munro conducted in collaboration with Black historian, Dr Onyeka Nubia.

“The ambition has always been to make invisible history, visible,” Munro says, returning to her guiding principle as a writer of historical dramas. “I’m really aware that women’s history is particularly invisible, Black history is particularly invisible, queer history is particularly invisible. But making female protagonists who have historical facts behind them credible, and as vehicles for Scottish history, is really hard.”

So with four Jameses ticked off, one ready to launch and Mary also covered, there’s only James VI left to go in order for Rona Munro’s original trilogy to become a septet.

The Herald: Julianne Moore as Mary Villiers and Nicholas Galitzine as George Villiers in episode four of Mary & GeorgeJulianne Moore as Mary Villiers and Nicholas Galitzine as George Villiers in episode four of Mary & George (Image: free)

Sky Atlantic has already whetted the appetite by screening Mary & George, a bawdy historical romp which debuted last month. It stars Hollywood A-Lister Julianne Moore as Mary Villiers, mother of James VI’s lover, George Villiers. Tony Curran plays the boorish Stewart monarch and the action is set after James’s departure for London to become James VI and I following the union of the crowns in 1603. Munro’s putative take on James VI would necessarily end when the king makes his last journey south, never to return, but anything which puts him into the public consciousness has to be good, right?

And will James VI happen? “That’s the hope,” says Munro. “My ideal would be next year, but it’s not going to happen.”

Watch this space, though. The Edinburgh International Festival turns 80 in 2027 – what better way to celebrate than with an epic septet of Scottish history plays?

James V: Katherine opens at Capital Theatres’ The Studio, Edinburgh on April 5 (until April 20) before touring to the Tron Theatre, Glasgow (April 25-27); Lemon Tree, Aberdeen (April 30-May 4); Mull Theatre, Tobermory (May 7-8); Eden Court Theatre, Inverness (May 10-11); Dunoon Burgh Hall (May 13-14); Birnam Arts Centre, Dunkeld (May 17-18); The Byre Theatre, St Andrews (May 21-22); Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling (May 24-25); Eastgate Theatre, Peebles (May 28-29); and Melrose Corn Exchange (May 31-June 1)