Stitched-up-theatre is set to bring its experimental theatrical opera piece The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H to venues in Yorkshire, the contemporary theatre company has announced.
The work is based on the true story of Mary Frances Heaton, a 19th century piano teacher from Wakefield. It premiered at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival in London in 2021. It was also part of the 2021 Grimeborn festival at London’s Arcola Theatre.
Heaton was committed to an insane asylum after she publicly insulted a vicar. He was the father of one of her pupils and had failed to pay for the twice-weekly lessons. She was held overnight in Wakefield Gaol and at a tribunal was deemed to be “a lunatic insane and dangerous idiot”.
She was committed to the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum in Wakefield. She was never offered a trial or given any opportunity to defend herself. She remained incarcerated for 41 years, until her death. During her imprisonment, Heaton was subjected to a range of pseudoscientific and cruel treatments such as electric shocks to the pelvis, purgatives and the ingestion of mercury.
With no other means of defending herself, Heaton took to embroidering her story on her own and fellow patients’ old clothing. These samplers were particularly intricate and detailed. Only a few survive; they are on display in Wakefield’s Mental Health Museum. One sampler was addressed to Queen Victoria, another suggested an affair with Lord Seymour to whose children she had been governess.
Heaton was moved to another asylum in 1878 and died later that same year. She was buried in a pauper’s grave. In 2022, she was commemorated with a blue plaque in Wakefield.
This new contemporary opera from Stitched-up-theatre uses Heaton’s own words taken from these samplers, as well as her surviving medical records, to chronicle her life-long struggle to hang onto her own identity. The theatre group described the opera as: “A poetic portrayal of a Victorian woman imprisoned by a society intent on control.
“Mary’s tale is told through her own words, her defiant protests stitched into embroidered samplers and discovered in the asylum years later.”
The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H has been created by Red Gray, soprano and Stitched-up-theatre’s artistic director, and composer and experimental pianist Sarah Nicolls. It is performed by Gray and Nicolls, on her unique inside-out piano. The piece is directed by Zoe Bouras, with choreography by Kate Webster, who also performs, and features lighting design by Kristina Hjelm and costumes by Rosie Whiting.
The production will be touring to four locations in Yorkshire in February and March. The tour has been made possible with funding from Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Fund. It kicks off at Halifax Playhouse on 23 February at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £20.
It will then head to CAST Doncaster on 2 March; the show starts at 7.45pm. Tickets cost £13. On 7 March, the production will be at Theatre Royal Wakefield, starting at 7.30pm. Tickets cost from £15. The final date of the tour is 9 March at Left Bank Leeds at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £20.
In addition to these performances, textile and embroidery artist Lola Spinks will deliver 12 radical stitching workshops to women’s community groups in each of the four locations. Red Gray will also be running two empowering singing workshops for women from refugee and asylum-seeking communities. Supported by Opera North, these will take place at Leeds Playhouse and Theatre Royal Wakefield.
Red Gray, soprano and Stitched-up-theatre’s artistic director, performs in The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H, which will embark on a tour of Yorkshire in February and March (Claire Shovelton).