Man For All Seasons for GCSE English Literature has lapsed to less than a distant memory. Horrible Histories via my daughter leaves me with the rhyme: divorced, beheaded and died; divorced, beheaded, survived.
Catherine of Aragon is the first wife on that list. But as playwright and composer Conor Mitchell illuminates in his new show, there’s a lot more to Catherine than simply being the first in a tragic line of six. The relationships between this Castilian princess and her first (Arthur, Prince of Wales) and second (King Henry VIII) husbands are at the heart of Mitchell’s title – The C**t of Queen Catherine – which sums up the central anxiety about Catherine’s uncertain and unstable position in the Royal household. Yet gender and reproduction didn't limit Catherine's true legacy.
A little like Mr Benn walking through the magic door at the back of the changing room, entering the Upstairs venue in the MAC can be quite an adventure. The rectangular stage is located in the middle of the theatre space, and the tiered seating has been pushed back. The audience mostly sit on cushions on the floor or lean against the walls on three sides of the theatre (unless suitable dispensation has granted them a chair).
Abigail McGibbon confidently plays the titular role, an older woman (dressed not unlike Hillary Clinton) who paces up and down inside the single room she now permanently inhabits. Her retrospective monologue emotionally veers from shouty to despairing and is accompanied by an often discordant score performed by Conor Mitchell and a string trio (Aoife Magee, Clare Hadwen and Kerry Brady).
Shafts of light pierce the foggy gloom and intersect the stage. In an instant the mood changes and Simon Bird’s lighting design bathes the shiny floor in brilliant white from sixteen overhead spotlights. A microphone picks up Abigail’s raised voice and her words reverberate around the theatre’s hard surfaces, staying on the right side of feeding back.
Catherine looks back over her upbringing, early life and unfortunate loves. Prince Arthur was a sickly man who died five months after they were married and apparently before the marriage was consummated. Her first son with Henry VIII died …
“I had a son for fifty days but God could not wait. [Daughter Mary] … has she no head to wear a crown?”
The live score certainly adds a sense of urgency to Catherine’s impassioned musings. The actor and the musicians are tightly bound to each other’s cues. The script is Shakespearian in tenor, occasionally lurching back into modern vernacular to curse the French or some such utterance. Some scenes did race through at a speed that left me grasping to keep up with the story.
The Belfast Ensemble are playing with the format of theatre, and it’s rewarding to experience. Long may Conor Mitchell and friends continue to challenge the definition of normal.
The C***t of Queen Catherine runs Upstairs in the MAC until Saturday 30 April.
It’s a bold forty minute music-theatre performance with a novel staging and an unexpected but thoughtful examination of an unexplored character from European history. If it’s brave to be the only actor occupying an exposed set, Abigail McGibbon gives away no tell tale signs of apprehension. Instead she reels in the audience with her autobiographical analysis. While the show’s title is a bit of a dummy pass that will hinder some from attending – though in Mitchell’s defence, the title The Vagina Monologues had already been used – the script is historically salacious rather than fictionally sensual and I suspect Queen Catherine will return at some point to a local stage.