United Kingdom Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival  – Red Gray and Sarah Nicolls – The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H. (world premiere): Actors/soloists. Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone, London, 5.8.2021. (MB)
Director – Zoe Bouras
Movement – Katie Webster
Lighting – Kristina Jjelm
Costumes – Rosie Whiting
Mary Frances Heaton (voice) – Red Gray
Mary Matthewson (inside out piano) – Sarah Nicolls
Overseer/Asylum Attendant – Katie Webster
A fascinating evening encountering The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H.: perhaps more a resourceful theatre piece with music than opera, though it had something of music theatre to it too. As with other instalments in Tête-à-Tête’s 2021 Opera Festival, though, we should not get bogged down with what ‘is’ or ‘is not’ an opera. Sometimes it matters, for instance when that question proves an intrinsic part of the work and its challenge, but that was not the case here.
Stitched-up-Theatre here presents the tale of Mary Frances Heaton, words and music formulated together by Red Gray and Sarah Nicolls, who also played respectively the title role and a fellow inmate, a second Mary, Matthewson. Mary Frances Heaton was arrested in 1837 for a breach of the peace, having insisted on payment from a clergyman for one of her lessons. She was sentenced to life imprisonment at Wakefield’s Pauper Lunatic Asylum and never saw the light of day again. Using words from medical reports and her own words, sewn into patients’ clothes and samplers she embroidered — also part of the designs — Gray and Nicholls have told and reimagined her story in a way that can hardly fail to elicit sympathy and outrage at the injustice, Katie Webster’s vicious roles as Overseer and Asylum Attendant speaking more broadly of societal attitudes towards both women and those judged to be ‘lunatics’, electric shocks to the pelvis included. Vocal style ranges from popular song to art song to something more operatic, moments of transition often particularly telling in performance.
On the ‘inside out piano’, her own invention, Nicolls offers music and performance ranging from conventional salon music to ‘prepared’ contemporary. All the time, the arresting image of her instrument contributes its own visual aesthetic and, perhaps, if one wishes, Foucauldian social commentary. There is more minimalist music using asylum cutlery and crockery, enabling responsorial sympathy and solidarity between the two Marys. And there is dramatic physicality in the movement of sheets, both figurative and more realistic. As we take our seats, there is introductory piano music by the nineteenth-century English pianist and composer, Kate Loder: a welcome opportunity to hear music clearly influenced by Chopin and other early Romantics. Had I realised what it was, I should probably have listened more keenly. That doubtless tells its own story.
This is Mary Frances Heaton’s story, of course: a tribute to her spirit and an indictment to the society that crushed it. We might have seen and heard things differently, had it been that of Mary Matthewson or someone from the authorities. But that is part of the point; other untold stories can be told too. This one, absorbing and sympathetic, is very well worth telling, seeing, and hearing.