The Chamber of Beheaded Queens is a distinctly feminised historical fantasy. It depicts an afterlife where Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, Catherine Howard and Marie-Antoinette share their experiences of the cruel men who beheaded them. The chamber is an heavenly sanctuary that is part of a honeycombed network of similar spaces. They are linked by labyrinthine corridors that allow the dead to develop their personalities as though alive. Catherine Howard, played youthfully by Maisie Young, states she was still childlike when beheaded. Thus, she uses the corridors to mature.
The performance begins with an embroidering Anne Boleyn (played by Christine Corser with a subtle fragility) sat opposite a staunch Mary Stuart (played with a wonderful pertness by Ashleigh Barton). Birdsong begins to play. It transpires that Anne has remained silent for a hundred years, a suggestion of how long it has taken her to heal. Then an interesting conflict emerges through the only luxury the queens are allowed – tokens. Anne is annoyed with Mary for wasting a token on birdsong, so she takes refuge in her sowing. A feminine pastime implying it provided Anne refuge from patriarchal constraints when alive. Furthermore, the birdsong reminds Anne of being imprisoned in a stone cell, as she heard the chirping outside. The implication is that being married to a king is itself a prison sentence.
The only male in the play is The Herald performed by the delightfully boyish Isobelle Binns. The Herald adds light humour to the melancholic drama. He addresses the audience with playful banter, and blows into his little trumpet that perhaps signifies diminished patriarchal power. The Herald is noticeably servile to the queens, though displays an apologetic authority through managing their tokens and offering a sympathetic voice.
The drama unfolds when a freshly beheaded Marie-Antoinette is helped into the chamber. The traumatised queen is played by the excellent Jessica Huckerby. Her bony haunted look and quivering French accent movingly encapsulate an abused woman. As The Herald reminds the three other queens, ‘death is not the worst thing that can happen to a woman’ (Parker ‘Chamber’ i). The indication is that death is a patriarchal escape from torment, as Marie-Antoinette’s distressing entrance illustrates the misery, suffering and dehumanization under male power. She not only suffers as a wife, but also as a mother separated from her children. A moment of black humour illuminates Marie-Antoinette’s low self-esteem. She, a queen with supposed power, ends up apologising for stepping on her executioner’s foot.
The Chamber of Beheaded Queens depicts the dichotomy between kings and queens, where masculinity dominates femininity. Marie-Antoinette’s concern over her young son being introduced to drinking, hunting and other inappropriate male pastimes reveals the effects of a society wilfully depraved by muting a matriarchal voice. Though these oppositions are seemingly reversed in the afterlife. Whereas men are eventually silenced by mortality, women enjoy a timelessness to recuperate and formulate their own empowered identities. The beheaded queen’s newfound voice in the chamber is reminiscent of Griselda Pollock’s notion of the Matrix:
The Phallus is an organizing symbol of the subject in terms of the One versus the Other – aggression, separation, castration, assimilation; the Matrix is a symbol aligning the subject in relation to coexisting, co-emerging but unknown part-subjects that come before the castration paradigm and perpetually accompany it. (Pollock 268)
In their chamber, the beheaded queens are able to resist the patriarchal demands of ‘aggression, separation, castration, assimilation’. However, they ‘come before the castration paradigm and perpetually accompany it’. The profound image of Anne, Mary, Catherine and Marie-Antoinette having their heads restored to their bodies, with scarlet ribbons as little tokens of decapitation, implies maternal bonding. As the play’s ending announces, the queen’s are reborn in a womblike space to be renamed ‘The Chamber of Re-capitated Queens’.
K T Parker’s imaginative play is a historical or, more appropriately, herstorical fantasy that purges women of hysteria so they can enjoy eternity. The Chamber of Beheaded Queens is still showing at the 2016 Page to Stage Liverpool Festival. On Friday 15th April, the play is included in a ‘Travels Through Time’ double bill with the equally imaginative Elizabethan play Truly Exotic. The double bill starts 7pm at Fruit & Fibres Canteen and includes an all you can eat scouse meal. Price is £15.00 on the door or book online here.
The two week Page to Stage Liverpool festival (April 3rd-17th) showcases the work of Britain’s best new talented playwrights (7 plays in total). The other plays are:
Bricks written by Michael Rumney, directed by Hannah Kelly.
An Everyday Apocalypse written by Thomas Oléron Evans, directed by Zara Brown.
Our Gift written by Andrew Rimmer, directed by Kevin Foott.
The Reluctant Celebrity written by Clarke McWilliam, directed by Sam Davies.
Truly Exotic written by Frank I. Swannack, directed by Rhys Hayes.
Welcome To Paradise Road by Brian Coyle, directed by Emma Bird
Parker, KT. ‘The Chamber of Beheaded Queens’. 2016. Dir. Kate O’Leary. 2016 Page to Stage Liverpool Festival, Festival Director John Mc.
Pollock, Griselda. ‘Gleaning in history or coming after/behind the reapers: the feminine, the stranger and the matrix in the work and theory of Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger’. Generations and geographies in the visual arts: Feminist Readings. Ed. Griselda Pollock. London & New York: Routledge, 1996.