Inês De Castro: The Macabre Story of the “Skeleton Queen” – 71Bait

Meanwhile, one of Jordão’s favorite 2009 adaptations of the story Tale of Coimbra is by the Takarazuka Revue: an all-female theater company founded in Japan in 1913 that puts on extravagant musical productions in which women play the male roles. “They set the story in pirate times – so Inês has a pirate double!” says Jordão gleefully.

A notable English-language performance for the story recently was James MacMillan’s controversial opera Inês de Castro, which premiered at the 1996 Edinburgh International Festival and was revised and revived for Scottish Opera in 2015. It has a libretto by Scottish playwright Jo Clifford, who first narrated Inês’ story as a straight play at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theater in 1989. Refusing to sentimentalize this story of femicide, she tells “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 be banned, adding: “It is a review of which I am very proud”. More recent reactions have been less absolute, although The Guardian called the 2015 revival, set in a contemporary political dictatorship, “staggering – almost incessant, at times lewd”. [and] Clifford’s unflinching libretto contains graphic depictions of sexual violence, infanticide and torture… It’s no easy task, but it’s not meant to be.”

Jordão’s research is explicitly interested in the character of Inês, her agency, and feminist versions of the story – of which I suppose there must be many. Apparently not so: she cites Clifford’s work along these lines as still fairly rare. While some early pieces – Ferreira’s Castro; Vélez de Guevara’s Reinar Después de Morir – centered on Inês, Pedro then taking precedence in most subsequent retellings.

“The story revolves around him – how he explains the civil war, how he tortures assassins, how he takes Inês from her resting place…” says Jordão. “Even in children’s stories and 20th-century popular culture, Inês’ sentimental femininity and passivity is totally exaggerated. She is described as someone who is beautiful but does nothing.” Partly out of frustration with this, Jordão has written her own play I, Castro, which will have a scenic reading this summer, which Inês shares with other ignored women in the narrative, like hers sister and Pedro’s daughter.

However, the watch face on this one is subject to change, albeit slowly. Inês’ recent high-profile performance – Inês de Castro, a historical novel by Portuguese writer Isabel Stilwell, published last October – is certainly aimed at making her influential. Its slogan is “spy, lover and queen of Portugal,” and this Inês is more of a player than a pawn in political chess: “an agile spy who moved the pieces on the board of power,” as the blurb puts it .

Such interpretations inevitably lead us back to the Rego painting – another work that places Inês firmly at the center, albeit obscurely. “It shows Rego’s feminist worldview, in which women are dominant – or at least not subservient,” says Polonsky. “[Rego] talks a lot about the undermining of hierarchies, and in this painting Inês is the main character. She dominates the composition despite being a corpse.”

As perhaps it should be in this tale of a dead queen who just 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 scenic reading of Aida Jordão’s play I, Castro will be performed at the Women, Gender and Intersectionity in the Lusophone World conference, June 2-July in Ponta Delgada, Portugal.

holly Williams‘s novel when is love will be published by Orion on May 26th.

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