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Brighton Year-Round 2024

Low Down

So fitting that ’She-Wolves’ was staged on Easter Sunday – or as the flyer listed it : Ëostre Day.

Just that morning, a cartoon had been posted on Facebook: simple line drawings of what were obviously people from Biblical times.

On the left were three women, heads covered – while on the right of the picture were about twenty-five men, bare headed and bearded.

The cartoon’s line read – “So, Ladies; thanks for being the first to witness and report the Resurrection – and we’ll take it from here …”

Says it all, doesn’t it …


There, in one line, is an illustration of how the Patriarchy has taken control of the Christian story – and also of the authority of The Church. The Ëostre Day programme at Ironworks is named after Ëostre, an ancient German goddess associated with fertility, and the resurgence of plant and animal life in the Spring – her name is probably the origin of our word for Easter.

So this was very much a feminist-centred event, and ‘She-Wolves’ shared the programme with ‘Unisex’, a one-woman show featuring Lea Sep. Unisex is about a modern woman’s experience of toxic masculinity, while She-Wolves features powerful Royal women from British history.

Queens – the daughters, wives or mothers of Kings – women of extraordinary character and talent who attempted to rule, yet who were blocked and frustrated in their ambition, because in the Medieval world power was inescapably male.

Seven of them –

Matilda: daughter of Henry l of England.

Eleanor of Aquitaine: wife of Louis Vll of France, then of Henry ll of England.

Isabella of France: wife of Edward ll of England.

Margaret of Anjou: wife of Henry Vl of England.

Jane Grey: Queen for just nine days after the death of Edward Vl, son of Henry Vlll

Mary l: daughter of Henry Vlll of England and Catherine of Aragon

Elizabeth l

Listed like that, it sounds like a rather dull history lesson – but ‘She-Wolves’ was anything but !

“A healthy woman is much like a wolf”

The Ironworks stage was dimly lit at the start, with pools of light that the narrator walked through as she began her tale. Laura Careless is a very engaging story-teller, and soon she donned a long red ermine-trimmed cloak, and took on the persona of Matilda.

Matilda’s father King Henry had just died, and she had been promised the throne of England – but her cousin Stephen had seized it for himself, with the support of a group of powerful English nobles. So in order to lay claim her inheritance, Matilda had to arrive by sea, and organise a base in a castle on the South Coast. An atmospheric soundtrack let us hear the waves splashing as her ship foundered at the harbour entrance and her party had to wade ashore, and then a cleverly designed piece of stage furniture became a castle, with a window, which Matilda peered through as she continued her tale.

This prop, essentially a box on wheels about four and a half feet high, (designed by Colin Holden and Nancy Angus), could be opened out to display its innards, and at various times was moved around to become a throne, a desk, and even a well (complete with pulley and bucket full of water). It was the only object on an otherwise completely bare stage,

In the best tradition of minimalist theatre, we were left to imagine the different locations for ourselves, with Belle Mellor’s powerful animated graphics, projected onto the back wall, giving us a wonderful sense of environment. ‘Powerful’ is really the only way to describe these images – bold monochrome, white on black: simple shapes of people, forests and buildings, crudely drawn by intention, but their form strangely reminiscent of Medieval manuscript illuminations. During the civil war that followed Matilda’s failed attempt to be crowned, she’s under siege at Oxford, during winter. Laura Careless spoke to us of Matilda’s feelings, while a storm of heavy white snowflakes blew across the wall behind her.

This review hasn’t got the space to tell you about all the She-Wolves’ stories, though every one was gripping. In a later section, when we’d got to Margaret of Anjou and the Wars of The Roses, that Queen had lost her son at the Battle of Tewksbury. She’d taken refuge in Tewksbury Abbey, and in one of the most poignant moments of the production she lies on the Abbey floor, mourning his death, while above her we could see the columns and arches of the building, sketched in stark black and white.

These women were regarded as ‘She-Wolves’ by their male contemporaries, and they all feature in Helen Castor’s book of that title. This adaptation is written by Careless herself, who’s brought a big book to life, and made it very accessible within a sixty minute slot. She’s taken inspiration, too, from Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book ‘Women Who Run With The Wolves’. Angela El Zeind collaborated in the Isabella section; and there’s previous, too, from this teaming – El Zeind has written a verbatim piece about breast cancer, ‘Rebel Boob’, which features movement as well as voice; and Laura Careless has performed in one of its stagings.

Which brings us to Careless herself. As I said above, she’s an engaging story-teller, but once she’d slipped off Matilda’s cloak she was wearing a simple white shift, and she danced the characters and events for us. That’s putting it far too mildly – Careless is a stunning dancer – her movements and gestures fluid, balletic, as she took possession of the entire stage: at one point static with arms raised to the sky like a tree; then at another, crouching forward as she moved long-legged like a stalking wolf. The woman was mesmerizing, supremely able to convey the emotional states of a number of very different individuals. She changed costumes for each character – now in her shift; now in a white cloak; now wearing a wolf corset that also looked like some kind of battle harness. Changed expression, too – sometimes looking wistfully towards the margins, then facing direct to audience as she delivered one of Isabella’s trenchant statements – “I Am The Queen”

This wasn’t just a visual experience, of course. Bisan Toron’s voice-overs – ‘Vocal Creatures’ -shared narration with Careless, providing more background and context, while relevant information on dates, family connections etc. was intercut with the graphics. There was Toron’s music, too: Ryan McAdams’ sound design gave added depth and power to the stories – sometimes soft and melodic, then becoming brassy, reverberating and almost overpowering, especially during the many battle scenes. After the death of Edward Vl the space was flooded with beautiful choral singing, it felt like being in a cathedral.

Lady Jane Grey was handed the Crown, but simply as a ploy to keep out the Catholic Mary Tudor, and she reigned for only nine days. Mary l – ‘Bloody Mary’ to her Protestant opponents, held the throne for five years, and her eventual successor was Elizabeth – ‘Gloriana’ as the graphics named her for us.

Elizabeth was certainly powerful, but she was forced to remain unmarried – ‘the Virgin Queen’ – because her (male) advisors were wary of the dangers of a foreign husband for the monarch.  Mary had the same problem, but also, as she herself put it – “How can I obey a man who is my subject?”, though in her case she contracted a marriage with Phillip ll of Spain (who was of course of equal rank). All of this was illustrated by a recording of ‘What Now, My Love?’, the song swelling in volume and power to fill the Ironworks space as the show came to a climax. All the problems that beset Queens in an age of male dominance –

“Watching my dreams / turning to ashes

And my hopes / into bits of clay

Once I could see / once I could feel

Now I’m numb / I’ve become unreal …”

But … for the She-Wolves themselves, perhaps the underlying philosophy of the whole production can be best summed up in one of the voice-overs –

“After her daring escape through the snow, Matilda was free – but nothing had changed. She will always represent a challenge to the Crown – and yet, as a woman, she would never fit the idea of what a Queen should be.

But – as the mother of a son with a tame King, she couldn’t wear the crown … but her cub would !”



Rebel Boob