A fifty minute monologue – in verse – from the perspective of an iconic former queen. It’s every actor’s dream (or nightmare) depending on who you talk to. A piece that requires unflagging attention and concentration, “The Moot Virginity of Catherine of Aragon” is undoubtedly a marathon for me – but I sometimes feel the audience is more exhausted by the end than I am! Because I am exhilarated by Catherine’s intensity; this play is a joy to perform, each turn, each shift another adrenaline-boosting shot.
To prepare Catherine, Conor Mitchell (the writer) and I read as much as we could about her. We felt strongly that she was a mis-remembered woman, characterised historically as plain, pious and dull. Nothing could be further from the truth! In fact we discovered a sexy woman, an intelligent woman, a devout woman yes, and of integrity, but also a woman of wit and cunning. Reaching back into her often traumatic past, we found an extraordinary person trapped in circumstances beyond her control – circumstances that would ‘cleave the continent in two’.
Watching Brexit and Trump’s election, it’s hard not to feel contemporary resonances between this world – 1500s Europe beset by divisions in the midst of the Reformation – and our own. Traversing the centuries, I try to think less about what the global consequences of Kate and Henry VIII’s divorce were, and more on her immediate reaction as a woman, encompassing her roles as wife, mother and monarch.
“The Moot Virginity of Catherine of Aragon” is music theatre. That means whilst I am the sole speaker, I am effectively joined by another character in the form of an onstage band (string trio and keys). They are there underscoring my actions – articulating my emotions – and making up part of the drama of the play. I feel so fortunate to have them there with me creating a kind of tense, fabulous push and pull between soloist and ensemble. So although I do not sing, this is a song cycle of sorts! I would love to know how singers and musicians respond to it.
Conor has distilled something very special indeed – an existential crisis decanted as abstract poetry and music. The result is not only fascinating as an experiment in form but – perhaps surprisingly – really beautiful.
I can’t wait to see what Welsh audiences, watching in the shadow of Ludlow Castle at the Sherman Theatre’s Studio space, make of our dowager Princess of Wales.
Abigail McGibbon is a founding member of The Belfast Ensemble along with Conor Mitchell
“The Moot Virginity of Catherine of Aragon” | 24-28 January | 8.00pm | £15, £13 concessions, 1/2 price under 25s