Inês De Castro: The macabre story of the “skeleton queen”


Meanwhile, one of Jordão’s favorite adaptations of the story is 2009’s Tale of Coimbra, by the Takarazuka Revue: an all-female theater company, founded in Japan in 1913, which performs extravagant musical productions where women play male roles. “They set the story to the time of the pirates – so Inês has a double pirate!” said Jordão happily.

A recent and historically notable release in English was James MacMillan’s controversial opera Inês de Castro, which was first performed at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1996 and then revised and revived for Scottish Opera in 2015. It has a libretto by Scottish playwright Jo Clifford, who first told Inês’ story as a direct play at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theater in 1989. She refuses to sentimentalise this story of femicide , telling “the story of how women are used as pawns in war games,” says Jordão.

On Clifford’s website, she recalls that a review of the original production in The Observer called the opera a “piece of pornography” and suggested it should be banned, adding “this is a review of which I am very proud”. More recent responses were less absolute, although The Guardian called the 2015 revival, set in a contemporary political dictatorship, “heartbreaking – almost relentlessly, sometimes salaciously. [and] Clifford’s unwavering libretto contains graphic depictions of sexual violence, infanticide and torture… It’s not an easy watch, but it’s not meant to be.

Jordão’s research is explicitly interested in the character of Inês, her agency, and feminist versions of history – of which, I suspect, there must be many. Not so, apparently: she cites Clifford’s work along these lines as still quite rare. While a few early pieces – Castro de Ferreira; Reinar Después de Morir de Vélez de Guevara – place Inês in the center, Pedro then took precedence over most later accounts.

“The story revolves around him – how he declares civil war, how he tortures assassins, how he takes Inês from her resting place…” says Jordão. “Even in children’s stories and popular culture of the 20th century, Inês’s sentimental femininity and passivity are totally emphasized. She is described as someone beautiful, but who does nothing.” Partly out of frustration, Jordão wrote her own play, Me, Castro, which will have a staged reading this summer, which puts Inês in conversation with other women ignored in the narrative, like her sister and the daughter of Peter.

The dial on this can change, albeit slowly, though. Inês’ latest high-profile release – Inês de Castro, a historical novel by Portuguese writer Isabel Stilwell, released last October – is certainly aimed at giving her influence. Her slogan is “Spy, lover and queen of Portugal”, and this Inês is a player, rather than a pawn, in the game of political chess: “a nimble spy who moved the pieces on the chessboard of power” , as the blurb puts it.

Such interpretations inevitably bring us back to Rego’s painting – another work that places Inês firmly in center stage, albeit darkly. “It shows Rego’s feminist worldview, in which women are dominant — or not subordinate, at least,” Polonsky says. “[Rego] talks a lot about reversing hierarchies, and in this painting, Inês is really the main character. It dominates the composition even if it is a corpse.”

As it should be, perhaps, in this story of a dead queen who simply won’t be forgotten.

Myth-Making and Self-Fashioning is at the London Art Fair, April 20-24; The Women’s Art Collection is open daily at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge. A staged reading of Aida Jordão’s play I, Castro will be performed at the Women, Gender and Intersectionality in the Portuguese-Speaking World conference, June 29-July 2, Ponta Delgada, Portugal.

holly williamsthe novel What time is love? will be released by Orion on May 26.

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