Josie Cray takes a look at ‘Women Rediscovered’, the collaborative project from Theatr Clwyd and the North East Wales Archives in which monologue-style films tell the true stories of inspirational Welsh women from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Standing in a hallway, whitewashed breezeblocks surrounding her, Gwyneth Owens (played by Lowri Jones) tells us that ‘[t]he past is now. The past is tomorrow’. ‘Women Rediscovered’ is a recent collaboration between Theatr Clwyd and the North East Wales Archives, funded by a Welsh Government grant. Using archival material from the Denbighshire and Flintshire archives, the project brings to life the voices of women living in North East Wales in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Over the course of four videos, Emyr John and director Eleri B. Jones capture the lives of four women who still have something to say.
What is so exciting about this project is not just the incredible performances of Lowri Jones, Caitlin Drake, Courtney George, and Kerry Peers, but how it moves beyond the videos. Alongside these stories the archives are presenting archival material to anchor these voices to the present day. They share images of the reception order of Ann Owen, the minutes of Victoria School from 1924 showing the retirement of Miss Harris-Jones, and more. These images of archival documents and ephemera connect the past to now and remind us that history is made in the everyday.
In ‘Denbigh’, the trauma and treatment of mental health patients in the late 1800s is laid bare. We meet Gwyneth standing in a hospital hallway reflecting on the life of her ancestor, Ann – who had been a patient at the North Wales Hospital Denbigh. After digging into her family history, Gwyneth learns of Ann and her internment at the hospital for ‘Chronic Mania’. Jones switches effortlessly between Ann and Gwyneth, spitting out Ann’s hallucinations of drowning her husband in the bath with powerful vulnerability. Only when Gwyneth begins to experience hallucinations herself and visits the doctor does the connection between past and present take hold. Ann’s ‘Chronic Mania’, we learn, is now called ‘postnatal psychosis’ – ‘hereditary, completely treatable now’. The simple setting of the whitewashed hospital corridor allows Jones to shine, capturing the calm curiosity of Gwyneth seemingly laying Ann’s voice to rest.
Along a similar line of trauma is ‘Gosford, The Widow’ – a powerful monologue revealing the lasting wound of miners’ deaths. On the 22nd of September 1934, Gresford Colliery was the site of an explosion, killing 266 men. The Widow, played by Courtney George, sits at the memorial service hosted by Wrexham Parish Church reflecting. Much like ‘Denbigh’, the simplicity of the video – a black backdrop, George dressed all in black – allows the stark reality of the dangers of mining to come to the fore. The memorial has to take place on a Sunday – the one day miners don’t work – reveals the darker side of capitalism in the early twentieth century. For the owners ‘loss of life was one thing, loss of profits was quite another’. In fact, the Widow reveals how the miners who died were docked half a day’s wages for dying on company time. And the looming threat of death hangs over the families with no other way to make money. Her son, coming of age to start working and with a strong desire to become man of the house in the absence of his father, looks to the mine much to his mother’s worry and feeding into the cycle of danger.
In contrast to these videos, ‘Llyn Padarn’ and ‘Miss Harris’ show the strength, skill and dedication of Welsh women, revealing strong characters from eighteenth- and twentieth-century Wales we would be more likely to find in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature. Played by Caitlin Drake, Peggy ‘Queen of the Lake’ was an eighteenth-century farmer from Snowdonia. Speaking from in front of a field in the evening wearing a flat cap and green heavy coat, Drake captures the tenacity and gusto of a woman who would not only rise to a challenge but overcome it easily. Raised by a father who saw her potential, Peggy was taught how to hunt and run a farm. She drew ire from the local men who believed she should stick to cooking and cleaning. Laughing at them, she points out that there are ‘a number of fat men here whose breasts are just as big as mine, but you don’t see them doing the cooking and the cleaning’. A strong woman who could wrestle with the best, Peggy was a skilled blacksmith, cobbler, farmer and had had three children. From throwing men who tried to have their way with her in the lake to rowing the length of the same lake without breaking a sweat, Peggy’s voice reveals the hardiness and strength of women who lived in the rugged terrain of eighteenth-century Snowdonia.
In the final video of ‘Women Rediscovered’, we meet Miss Harris-Jones – the Teacher. An advocate for free education and a woman with strong belief that the children of North Wales could be the next doctors, nurses, lawyers and politicians, Miss Harris-Jones is a figure who understood the importance of keeping up with the rapid change which coloured the early twentieth century and how important education was to shape the future. Played by Kerry Peers, sat behind a desk and dressed impeccably, we get a feel for the strength and determination of an educator who wanted a clean, warm environment for the children to learn in. From unsure parents to challenging board who wanted to remove funding for schools, Miss Harris-Jones’ story shed light on the fight for education for children in working class places.
All these women, and their rediscovered voices, draw attention to the history all around us. Miss Harris-Jones’ story struck a personal chord. Having grown up in Mold, I would pass the building of Mold School most days – a stone’s throw away from the primary school I attended. Hearing her voice and exploring the archival material hammered home how the past is always present, waiting for you to notice.
Josie Cray is a regular Wales Arts Review contributor, and co-hosts and produces the Wales Arts Review podcast.