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



Meanwhile, one of Jordão’s favourite adapations of the story is 2009’s Tale of Coimbra, by the Takarazuka Revue: an all-female theatrical company, founded in Japan in 1913, that perform extravagant musical productions where women play the masculine roles. “They set the story in pirate times – so Inês has a pirate double!” says Jordão gleefully. 

A recent, notable English-language outing for the story 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’s story as a straight play at Edinburgh’s Traverse theatre in 1989. She refuses to sentimentalise this story of femicide, telling “the story of how women are used as pawns in games of war,” 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 “it’s a review I am very proud of”. More recent responses were less absolute, although The Guardian called the 2015 revival, set in a contemporary political dictatorship, “harrowing – almost unremittingly, sometimes salaciously. MacMillan’s score simmers, shrieks and keens [and] Clifford’s unflinching libretto contains graphic depictions of sexual violence, infanticide and torture… It isn’t an easy watch, but it isn’t supposed to be.”

Jordão’s research is explicitly interested in the character of Inês, her agency, and in feminist versions of the story – of which, I assume, there must be many. Not so, apparently: she cites Clifford’s work in this direction as still being quite rare. While some early plays – Ferreira’s Castro; Vélez de Guevara’s Reinar Después de Morir – do put Inês at the centre, Pedro then took precedence in most subsequent retellings.

“The story becomes about 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 through the 20th Century, the sentimental femininity and passivity of Inês is totally played up. She’s described as someone who’s beautiful, but does nothing.” It is partly through frustration at this that Jordão has written her own play, I, Castro, which will have a staged reading this summer, which puts Inês in conversation with other ignored women in the narrative, such as her sister and Pedro’s daughter. 

The dial on this may be changing, even if slowly, however. Inês’s most recent high-profile outing – Inês de Castro, a historical novel by the Portuguese writer Isabel Stilwell, published last October – certainly aims to give her influence. Its tagline is “Spy, lover and Queen of Portugal”, and this Inês is a player, rather than a pawn, in the game of 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 puts Inês firmly centre-stage, however darkly. “It shows Rego’s feminist vision of the world, in which women are dominant – or not subservient, at least,” says Polonsky. “[Rego] talks a lot about subverting hierarchies, and in that painting, Inês is very much the main character. She dominates the composition even though she’s a corpse.” 

Just as it should be, perhaps, in this story of a dead queen who just won’t be forgotten.

Myth-Making and Self-Fashioning is at the London Art Fair, 20-24 April; 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 conference Women, Gender and Intersectionality in the Lusophone World, 29 June 2 to July, Ponta Delgada, Portugal.

Holly Williams‘s novel What Time is Love? will be published by Orion on 26 May. 

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