This one-woman show, based on the book and television series She-Wolves: The Women who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by historian Helen Castor, depicts the lives of five of England’s most famous medieval queens (Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou, and Mary I) using speech, song, dance, and animation.
Danièle Cybulskie caught up with Laura Careless to find out more about breathing new life into these powerful queens.
DC: Where did the idea for the show come from?
LC: A close friend gave me Helen’s book for my birthday, in a fateful moment beneath the clock at Grand Central Station in New York City! We were both reading Women Who Run With The Wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes and had been talking a lot about the archetype of a wild or wolfish woman. Seeing the term “She-Wolf” written over a portrait of Elizabeth I was immediately intriguing. I wanted to know what a wolf and a queen might have in common!
At the time, I was also working through the process of recovering – or re-wilding – my own artistic voice after many years of contributing to a company environment. I had made a few shorter solos for myself as part of that process, and was feeling ready for the challenge of making a longer work. The moment the book was in my hands I had a feeling this was the next project. I contacted Helen the day after I finished reading the book. She was excited for me to use the material, and I was ready to go!
DC: The show involves a whole mix of different artistic elements, from dance, to song, to costume, to animation. What inspired the aesthetic of the different queens?
LC: We have very few primary sources in these women’s own words, so bringing them to life for the stage or page is a subjective process. As Helen said to me the first time we met, it is so important to remember that all of the people we learn about in history were human! Engaging our empathy is an essential part of understanding these women and the choices they made.
So, I wanted to portray them in all their complexity, but without overwhelming the audience – easily done when you are zipping through five hundred years of history in one hour! I felt it was important to find an individual artistic “language” for each woman, partly to illustrate their individuality, and also to allow me and the audience to engage our full selves in the narrative. A monologue with a lot of words, for example, helps people understand mentally what is going on, while a dance can provide an opportunity to feel the emotional weight of a decision and its consequences.
Originally, the show was conceived so that each woman was an isolated collaboration with an artist in a different medium. For example, Margaret’s section is a collaboration with an animator, with her beautiful hand-drawn work projected over the back of the stage space while I dance. I love this for Margaret, because so much of her story was outside of her control. The projections are literally bigger than me, and as a performer I don’t have any control over them, so that sets up a specific dynamic. The lines between the collaborations and the different women have since blurred to incorporate multiple media in most sections, but I think each woman really has an individual identity, and each section connects with the audience in a different way. I like to think that each of the women would like their section best.
DC: In the show, you play all five queens. Why was this created as a one-woman show instead of one with five individual actresses?
LC: As a performer, I love the chance to shapeshift in front of an audience. I think it liberates people from the poisonous idea that there is one “ideal” way to be. This show has given me the opportunity to portray not only multiple women but even traits of multiple species!
I think it’s important to remember that we all have many potential ways of being within us, and these can be dampened or ignited according the circumstances in which we find ourselves. As Isabella states in the show (paraphrasing Helen’s own words): “Many of my actions were violent and self-serving, but so were those of the men around me… I challenge any of you to have done differently in my position”. In theatre, context is central to the process of creating a character. We spend time considering the influence of their life experiences, their culture, their location and their era upon the choices they make. When we consider women in history, this context is often left out or unknown – but not in Helen’s work.
DC: I completely agree. I love Helen’s work! Of course, I have to ask you: do you have a favourite queen?
LC: It changes every day, depending on my mood! When I feel gritty and determined, I love the challenge of Matilda, moving and speaking at the same time. When I feel sassy and ruthless, I savor Isabella’s monologue. Mary is my favourite to work on when I need to dance my troubles away. The queen I most struggled with when I first made the show was Margaret, since so much of her story revolved around her son. I have since become a mother and it has been very satisfying to remake this section incorporating lived experience of motherhood.
DC: These she-wolves were some of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages. How do you think their stories, their triumphs, and their struggles will speak to today’s audiences?
LC: I have gone through moments of deep questioning as to why I would give my time and energy to making and sharing a show about female royalty. These were in many ways highly privileged people in their time and while their stories are little known, there are so very many important stories that are entirely untold. Further, in order to understand the context of these stories, we must use historical, binary ideas about gender that can be challenging and upsetting. I take the responsibilities of storytelling seriously, and these are not easy challenges to sit with.
It is my belief that in order to move forward, we have to fully face the past and heal the things that have hurt. As an artist, I know that I cannot speak to everyone, but I know that many people with lived experience of misogyny carry similar wounds. From my own experience in learning about these women from history – working their context and their choices into my bones – I have discovered two very helpful things which make them feel worth the telling.
Firstly, I have learned about the history of misogyny, and the double bind women find themselves in, stuck between a lack of opportunity to exercise one’s power and the alienation one can feel in trying to do so. I often find myself torn between a desire to live in authenticity, and a sense that I am not approved of and cannot belong in society if I appear too intelligent, too powerful, too forceful. This is by no means a modern issue! Matilda was dealing with this back in the 1100s. The amount of time between her and me gives me sufficient distance to notice patterns, and this then helps me to sniff out shaming or judgmental behaviour to which I might otherwise be oblivious. Through British imperialism, these patterns of misogyny have traveled to many places in the world, so they are worth knowing about for anyone who desires a more even distribution of power.
Secondly, as a person living on the land where my family have always lived, these stories are a connecting thread back to a time when that distribution of power might have been more balanced between genders. Somewhere, way back in my Celtic heritage from centuries past, there might have been women who did not live as second-class citizens. But it’s really hard to hear their voices, or imagine what their lives might have been like. Because of the way customs and mythologies have been buried, and the ways history has been recorded – and by whom – the connection between us is full of holes. In the absence of records of everyday women and my direct ancestors, these royal women provide the few fragments of female voice in this period of history, and fill some of the gaps in that spiritual disconnect. While their circumstances were exceptional in many ways, their humanity was not.
Beneath and beyond the historical detail, my aim with this show is to reclaim “she-wolf” – a term of vilification for a “power hungry” woman. In my artistic practice, I hope to remove the hyphen and reassert something wild; to reverse the process that Dr. Estes describes as “extincting the instinctual”.
“She-Wolves” stars Laura Careless and is playing August 5–13 at 6:40pm at Greenside Nicolson Square. For more information, visit shewolvesproject.com. The show is also taking bookings for its 2022–2023 national tour in the UK. The book that inspired the project is She-Wolves: The Women who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor.
As a writer, professor, TEDx speaker, and podcaster, Danièle has been making the Middle Ages fun, entertaining, and accessible for over a decade. You can learn more about Danièle and her latest work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @5MinMedievalist