Contrary to so many horror films that over the years have depicted nature as the enemy and their female protagonists as victims, Charlotte Colbert’s She Will is a tale of personal and collective trauma and empowerment found in a deep connection with the land.
The film opens with the ageing film-star Veronica Ghent (Alice Krige) in a luxurious art deco train compartment taking Traumadol to relieve the pain from a recent double mastectomy. She is travelling with her young nurse Desi (Kota Eberhardt) to a retreat in the Scottish Highlands. At their arrival, they are met with exaggerated characters headed by Tirador, played by Rupert Everett in a little too caricatural Oscar Wilde pose.
All around is a wild and bleak forest that was once the theatre of the execution of women accused of witchcraft. The ground has absorbed the women’s power, be that of witches or of victims of a misogynistic crime, and it now insinuates itself in Veronica’s life bringing healing as well as power.
Director Charlotte Colbert excels at weaving together the physical elements of the forest with the symbolism of trauma and healing. The ground penetrates into Veronica’s cabin as a black sludge and into her dreams as nightmares. It liberates her from the shame she feels of her scarred body, deprived of breasts, symbol of femininity. It also brings redemption from the childhood trauma of being sexually exploited by the director of the film that launched her career, played by Malcolm McDowell. As Veronica embraces the power in the mud, her spirit haunts the film director who commits suicide.
Alice Krige dominates the film with intensity, subtlety, and charm. Krige’s Veronica is captivating in her transformation from a former film-star clinging to beauty by masking her body to an empowered woman with no fear. It is ironic that she played the evil witch in the faux feminist Gretel and Hansel that was so rife with misogynistic themes (see review).
The film is at its weakest when it leaves behind symbolism and tries to portray real characters and situations. Veronica’s relationship with her nurse Desi has little life in it notwithstanding solid performances. The attempted rape of Desi by a local young man is contrived, only serving the purpose of presenting an example of misogynistic violence which is punished by the revengeful forest. Other characters are a little too incidental adding little and at times disrupting the cohesiveness of the film.
Aside Krige, it is the physical and mental landscape that carries the film conveyed by the striking photography of Jamie Ramsay who fuses together the haunting images of Veronica’s nightmares and fantasies and the dark and sinister landscape all around her.
The choice of Scotland as a setting resonates historically. Between 1563 and 1736, an estimated 3837 people in Scotland were accused of witchcraft, a much higher proportion than in other European countries. 84% of them were women. It is estimated that over 60% of the accused were executed. This historical injustice has been addressed by the Witches of Scotland campaign, which has led to an official apology by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and has inspired movements in other countries.
With Gretel and Hansel, Oz Perkins retells the famous Grimms’ tale centreing it on Gretel’s ability to survive in a hostile world and overcome the temptation of evil. One should not be fooled by the title and the focus on Gretel and believe that it is a feminist rendering of the tale. The film hasn’t got an ounce of feminism or women’s empowerment. On the contrary, it is infused with the traditional misogynistic tropes of mad women and witches as women who kill children, including their own. It is not a misogynistic film either, thanks to a pervasive ambiguity, a clever weaving together of the stories of its protagonists, and subtle acting.
Faced with poverty and starvation, the mother of Gretel and Hansel turns mad and kicks them out. There begins Gretel’s journey of growing up and taking responsibility for herself and her little brother. She acts as a mother towards Hansel, protecting him from danger until Hansel’s hunger leads them inside the house of the witch. Gretel is at first wary of the hospitality of the witch. She becomes seduced by the witch’s knowledge and power. The witch teaches her magic, but it is a dark magic that requires sacrifice. The witch tells Gretel that she sacrificed her own children and asks Gretel to sacrifice Hansel to gain power.
Historical scholarship has shown that women victims of witch hunts were often those who did not conform to patriarchal norms and fulfil their roles as dutiful wives and daughters. Louise Jackson’s research on the Suffolk witch trials of 1645 shows that these were unmarried women, widows who lived alone, women suffering from depression, women who were not as submissive as they were meant to be.
The type of crimes of which the women were accused mirrored in reverse the tasks imposed by their social role of mothers and wives. As mother and wives, they were meant to feed, nurture, heal, and give birth. Thus, they were accused of poisoning, infanticide, harming, and of death. The witch is the opposite of the good wife and mother. It was not religious zealotry what motivated the witch-hunt, rather the systematic controlling of women. The pressure was so high that women convinced themselves that they were indeed witches and confessed to being a witch.
The mythical figure of the witch is constructed in opposition to the good wife and mother. She is dangerous and evil because she is not under the control of male authority. In the 1890s, as the figure of the New Woman begins to emerge in fiction and art (think Gustav Klimt), the witch and the female vampire are presented as strong in their sexuality, though largely still for the gaze of men. One of the central features of how women have been portrayed, especially in horror stories, is their dangerous power, which comes from their body, its ability to seduce, to give life, and thus destine us to death. Life is the beginning of death.
The film balances well the allure of the dark power of the witch with Gretel’s attempt at being responsible for life. It is, however, full of allusions and short of clear intent. The cinematography (by Galo Olivares) is slick without indulging in the aestheticism so prevalent in today’s cinema. Sophia Lillis, as Gretel is excellent, though it is Alice Krige, as the haggard-witch, who steals the show. The slow pace makes the film suggestive and subtle for most part. Alas, in the final act the writing (by Rob Hayes) turns artificial and wants to make a point quickly. It assumes a moralistic tone and falls for a simplistic triumph of good over evil. It’s as if the male authors couldn’t help but restoring order.
If there was ever a time we needed a WOW festival, it’s in 2018. Women of the World celebrates women and girls and takes a frank and at times challenging look at the obstacles faced by women.
It’s a global movement akin to the ‘V Day’ celebrations I have been lucky enough to be a part of elsewhere in the globe. This would be the first ‘full-blown’ version of the festival to take place in Wales (between 24th-25th November) and the first bilingual version of the festival. Both V Day and Women of the World celebrations aren’t purely about one topic, one issue – this year’s WOW Fest held everything from workshops on fixing bicycles to polemical clowning and talks/workshops on homelessness, self-care, black women’s hair, boxing, movement and storytelling.
This is very much about helping women to discover something new, finding solutions and new ideas to tackle problems old and new. It’s not a conference or a symposium, but a place you come to meet, connect with others and be inspired to take part.
Founded in 2010 by Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director, Jude Kelly CBE, it’s the biggest gathering of women and girls around the globe, reaching over 2 million people in 20 cities across 5 continents. It cooks up a series of varied, entertaining and challenging talks, debates, live music and performance, activism and comedy, along with mentoring and pop up events to create an eclectic and localised version of the larger global movement.
The 2018 WOW experience in Wales took place at Chapter Arts Centre, a smaller but perhaps more homely venue than a previous version of the festival was held in 2016 – at the Wales Millennium Centre. This year’s version featured a line up including Gwenno Saunders, Charlotte Church, Sian Evans, Lula Mehbratu (The Digital Migrant), Sahar Al-Faifi, Sian James former MP, Gemma Price (Boxing Pretty), Anna Hursey, Shahien Taj OBE, Lucy Owen (BBC Wales) and LayFullStop.
The staff handling the festival were wonderful, everyone from the lively chap checking me in, despite my apparent lack of ability to talk and articulate sentences that day, the ‘caped crusader’ volunteers donning glittery WOW capes, who brought so much pep and joy to the proceedings and helping headless chicken types like me navigate their way around. Then of course the regular Chapter staff who do so much to make everyone feel welcome.
It’s a lovely open space, but intimate enough not to feel intimidating unlike the labyrinth-like WMC, in which even the most regular of customers can still feel a bit lost and overwhelmed. Due to my Thanksgiving celebrations that weekend (perhaps this had something to do with my not being able to speak when I arrived), I unfortunately missed the majority of the festival and arrived towards the end of the final day, around 3.30pm.
There was still lots to see, lots going on and there was no sign of anyone’s enthusiasm waning. There was a lively, energetic atmosphere in Chapter’s Café Bar and members of the ‘Only Menopause Allowed’ choir were getting ready to perform. I caught the majority of the moving accounts of women affected by the Grenfell and Aberfan disasters during a panel discussion in Chapter’s Cinema 1 space.
Hosted by festival founder Jude Kelly, this was a sensitive but ultimately eye-opening account of the experiences of the women at the centre of both tragedies. We heard the terrible story of a panelist’s sibling whose family were torn apart by the death of her sister who went to school on the last day of term over 50 years ago and never came home.
Her father had been Chair of the Aberfan Memorial Site and spent his entire life fighting for justice for families in Aberfan after the NCB decided that £500 was a sufficient amount to compensate for the lost life of a child. To add insult to injury, the victims were forced to pay from their own fundraising fund for the NCB to remove the slurry and waste that had killed and injured so many.
This was a sobering account of both tragedies, where the guest speakers spoke with grace, real compassion for the other panelists and determination to see justice for the victims. They were not giving up the fight – and 52 years later, the daughter of the Chair of the Aberfan Memorial site had taken up the baton from her father and continues to campaign.
The Grenfell representatives who’d come down from London to tell their story spoke of being side-lined by local authorities, abandoned by the Government and belittled by large global charities. Theirs was a story of women the world over – organisers, do-ers, campaigners, nurturers – being rendered voiceless by individuals and organisations that assumed they knew better.
Like Aberfan, the fundraising efforts in Grenfell were mishandled by outside forces. Donations which had poured in from the public disappeared without trace, no explanation given about their whereabouts. Families struggled to gain access to funds and slowly – another community lost faith in those who were meant to protect them, more than 50 years after this happened to a community over 200 miles away.
The kinship these survivors and campaigners showed on stage was clear and their dignity and fortitude was incredibly moving. After leaving the Cinema/discussion, it was clear that the content of the talk had clearly affected some audience members, who left the Cinema weeping or being comforted by friends and relatives.
With limited time remaining, I decided to explore upstairs in the hopes of catching an act which had caught my attention in the programme. LayFullStop (I’d never heard of her before) is a female hip-hop/soul artist from Manchester via Birmingham. Accompanied on Stage by Woddy Green, who she has collaborated with on a number of tracks, I was surprised that such a small and unassuming young girl could possess such an incredible sultry voice and ferocious bars.
She’s been honing her talents with well-known collectives Cul De Sac and Roots Raddix and has built a cult following since 2016. It’s been a while since I have been in the loop when it comes to music and musical trends and probably more than 20 years (or more!) since I actively bought hip-hop music or read about it in ‘The Source.’ Apart from attending a Biggie Smalls Memorial Concert in my late teens and listening to Snoop Dog on Spotify now and again, that’s about as far as my knowledge goes these days.
LayFullStop amazed me, I had only intended to pop in for a quick listen but watched her entire set from start to finish. If you’ve ever had a passing appreciation for Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill or Lil Kim, you will love her. This was an utterly refreshing musical style and approach for those who like me find the ‘style over substance’ direction of hip-hop and music in general, a bit distasteful, fake or even tiresome. Her sound is slick – and far from the blingy, flashy humble (or not-so-humble) bragging which tends to dominate hip-hop performed by men, LayFullStop lets the music do the talking, rather than her style.
Her tracks are a sweet fusion of silky jazz, nostalgic soul and UK hip-hop, delivered with wit and panache from a small but fierce Mancunian. It’s rare for artists to skip so effortlessly from punchy hip-hop to sweet singing voice, but more than that – her lyrics are gold, focusing not on the more material and shallow aspects you tend to find in popular culture, but of the life-enhancing elements we can all identify with: finding your inner voice and power, enjoying touch and sensual experiences as a woman, growing intellectually and spiritually.
This to me is true influence and I felt richer for being part of it…she’s been on repeat on Soundcloud since the weekend. Women: I urge you to listen to this phenomenal woman from Manchester.
When you listen to her singing ‘Intact (Cradle Me)’, ‘Kansas’ and ‘Bohemian Queen’ you will be fixing your crown and sitting up a little straighter before facing the world.
Even in such a small snippet, this festival was a tonic for the sisterly soul. Thank you LayFullStop and WOW Fest for giving me some courage and hope on a rainy, grey weekend – if this is what the future looks like, then we’re in good hands.
Shirley Valentine is a middle-aged housewife who talks to the wall. She is married to Joe and has been a faithful wife and mother. Stuck in the rut of an unfulfilled marriage of routine and domestic drudgery she longs for another life.
Shirley’s best friend Jane, who is unattached since she discovering her husband in bed with the milkman, seems to enjoy a carefree existence and is able to experience a world that Shirley can only dream about.
This however, changes when Jane books a holiday to Greece and not only invites Shirley but gives her the tickets so as to make her decision more difficult.
Of course Shirley wants to go but how does she tell Joe, a man who for the whole of their married life has considered their annual holiday to the Isle of Wight – abroad.
Whilst the holiday is only three weeks away, Shirley struggles with her desire to change her life and become Shirley Valentine once more and leave drudgery behind. As a wife and mother she is caught up in being the constant in the lives of her family and wonders if she should go at all.
Eventually, she decides that she cannot let this opportunity slip away, whilst also knowing that if she tells Joe he will throw a fit, talk her out of it and tell her how stupid she is being.
So confiding in the kitchen wall, to whom she constantly chats, she plans to accompany Jane to Greece.
With all her domestic plans in place, Joe’s meals cooked and in the freezer, her mother coming over to defrost and microwave for him, Shirley buys new clothes for the new her that will go to Greece.
On the day of departure Shirley leaves by taxi and her adventure begins.
Once in Greece Jane hooks up with a man and Shirley spends the first few days by herself. She enjoys the freedom of not being at the beck and call of anyone else and she spends her days exploring the island and soaking up the sun and culture and slowly but surely a new Shirley is reborn – Shirley Valentine of her youth has returned.
With the scales peeled from her eyes she sees the people around her in a new light. The holiday makers at her hotel and the local population, Shirley has gone ‘native’.
Her transformation is complete when she meets Costas, the owner of a local tavern, who helps her fulfill her dream of drinking wine by the sea in the country where the grapes are grown.
Promising not to take advantage of her, the following day he takes her out for the day around the islands in his brother’s boat. The experience is life changing for Shirley, bolstering her confidence in herself and her attractiveness.
On the day of departure, as they are stood in the airport check-in queue Shirley realises she cannot go back to her old life and with the shouts of Jane and fellow passengers following her “come back!” she walks out of the airport and away from her old life and into a new one as she decides to stay in Greece and ask Costas for a job.
When she gets to the tavern Costas is already ‘chatting up’ the next woman, but Shirley hasn’t come back for Costas she has gone back for herself, the youthful, carefree, adventurer who was buried deep inside and who has finally emerged.
Now working evenings at the tavern, Shirley has fielded several phone calls from Joe demanding that she come home. Now, he has decided that his only course of action is to go to Greece to bring her back. Shirley on the other hand has no intention of returning and is sure that Joe will pass her by before recognising her as the happy changed woman she has become.
Shirley Valentine is the creation of writer Willy Russell. She is a manifestation of the 1960/70s middle-aged woman who married young, brought up a family and supported her husband.
Playwright Willy Russell was brought up in Liverpool surrounded by a family of strong women. At the age of 15 he left school to work at a womens’ hairdressers before returning to education and his career as a writer. It is clear that his observations of the women that surrounded him have had an effect on his writing as he has captured their essence as well as the secret dreams and aspirations of women of this time perfectly.
As a one-woman play Shirley Valentine is a triumph of female characterisation. As Shirley, Jodie Prenger skilfully develops her personality as the play unfolds and she tells her story. As she works her way around the kitchen and talks to the audience and of course the ‘wall’ you are drawn into her world and even the younger theatre goer gains a greater understanding of the life she leads and the life she dreams of.
It did feel as if it was a little bit of a slow burn, but this character could not have been rushed as she bared her soul and inner dreams before us.
Prenger’s portrayal of Shirley was a realistic and believable one. The audience was biased towards women, it has to be said of a certain age, who were empathetic to the character and her situation. The unsuppressed laughter at Shirley’s description of her life and encounters was encouraging as you realised that the audience ‘got it’.
Glen Walford has directed this production with the imagination and skill that you would have expected given her directing pedigree.
Although there are only two scene locations both felt familiar. The kitchen, the heart of the home, and the beach in Greece. I particularly liked the subtle lighting effects that gave movement to the sea it added to the atmosphere without distracting.
If there is one take away moment it has to be watching Prenger actually cooking chips’n’egg on stage, and as the lights dimmed for the next scene I couldn’t help smiling to myself as a male stage hand came on to clean the kitchen area. Something that her Joe would have been horrified at seeing, but then I wondered, would any of the younger women in the audience have even noticed?
Prenger did not disappoint as Shirley and received a well deserved standing ovation for giving us two hours of sheer pleasure.
Shirley Valentine plays at Cardiff’s New Theatre from;
Tuesday 27 June – Saturday 1 July at 7.30pm
On Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday there are performances at 2.30pm.
For further details about the show or to book tickets call the Box Office on 02920878889.
Creating opportunities for a diverse range of people to experience and respond to sport, arts, culture and live events. / Lleisiau amrywiol o Gymru yn ymateb i'r celfyddydau a digwyddiadau byw