What is The Last Woodwose?
The Last Woodwose is a new play by Suffolk writer Thea Smiley. It’s about a female woodwose, or wild woman of the woods. Facing extinction, she tells the extraordinary story of her life through shapeshifting, storytelling and magic, and reveals the origin of the legendary Green Children. The Last Woodwose weaves fact with fantasy in a magical, mythical tale illuminating the life-blood and wonders of the forest: the woodwose herself is its guardian.
What is special about The Last Woodwose?
Thea’s Woodwose brings a fresh, moving and exciting perspective to ‘wildmen’ stories. Threatened by the impinging world of man, our woodwose faces ever-encroaching environmental crisis. She turns the tables on destructive forces with courage, ingenuity, and a little magic. Strong and dignified, she challenges traditional femininity. Smiley’s exquisite nature writing together with colourful storytelling and live music merge into a cross-genre wildness, in which she inverts the archetypal threatening forest into a life-giving force that must be preserved. Can the woodwose survive the modern world?
The play grew out of an amazingly successful production of Smiley’s previous play, Return of the Wildman, staged by Wonderful Beast in 2017 and which we all loved. The Wildman, a man of the sea, propelled Thea to turn her attention to a female counterpart, and The Last Woodwose was born. A reading in Aldeburgh’s HighTide Festival last year, with actor Diana Quick as the wild woman, prompted an invitation to premiere the full production in the same festival in September 2019, and it is from this that the plan for the tour has sprung.
Inspired by local legends and symbolism, The Last Woodwose has grown organically out of ideas about women, folklore, nature and the power of universal themes. This play has blossomed during a period of intense discussion about environmental issues – it’s a subject that affects us all. The Last Woodwose finds itself ready for a stage lit by recent events such as David Attenborough’s ‘call to arms’, Greta Thunberg’s leadership of the schools’ strikes, and the daily announcements of the reality of habitat loss and its consequences.
What is a Woodwose?
The word ‘woodwose’ comes from the Old English wudewása, ‘wildman of the woods’ (OED). Depictions of woodwoses are seen in Britain and Europe from the medieval period onwards in churches and historic buildings. In fact, once you start looking, you can find them hiding everywhere: in heraldry, in carvings, embroidery, tapestry, illuminated books and stained glass. Usually bearded, hairy-skinned, naked men (with a few rare women), they are always shown holding a club, and occasionally in opposition against a fierce-looking wyvern (a two-legged, poisonous-breathed dragon).
Woodwose imagery is hugely prolific in East Anglian churches, where carved woodwoses can be found on fonts, side-by-side with saints, angels and lions. Their religious significance is unclear but their presence has inspired much curiosity. Some say the club pointing up means an unrepentant sinner, club down means repentant sinner; this is just one of endless posturings about the mysterious presence of this pagan figure in these Christian settings.
The idea of the shapeshifting woodwose was established in Early Modern theatre, where the state of being a woodwose has often been presented as temporary – one that can be adopted by or inflicted upon a human cast out from, or rejecting, society. Once civilised, or re-civilised, the ‘wild’ side of the character can be shed, and clothes re-adopted. Thus, wildness and madness can be seen as two sides of the same (think Lear on the heath).
The Last Woodwose is aimed at audiences aged 10+. The play is for three actors and a musician (Sylvia Hallett) and is driven by the woodwose’s narrative, with the other two actors multi-role playing as the story unfurls. The site-specific tour, minimal set and natural light fading to dark invite audiences into a magical world, leaving them with thought provoking questions about our relationship with the natural world.
HighTide Festival will host the premiere performance. The play will tour over two weeks (seven venues, eleven performances) in local and ancient woodlands, as well as two churches with beautiful medieval woodwose carvings, and a gorgeous medieval barn.
Who are we?
Wonderful Beast is the touring theatre company of myths, legends, folk tales and stories for all ages. We were co-founded in 1997 by Alys Kihl and Penny Cherns and a group of like-minded spirits, including Adrian Mitchell and Roger Lloyd Pack. We’ve toured nationally, played in India, collaborated with English Touring Opera and created a festival of fairy tales, Storm of Stories. For the past thirteen years we’ve been based in Suffolk, where we create interactive performances for babies and their parents/carers, workshops for schools, and new plays for new audiences. We’ve formed an amateur choir, the Wonderful Beast Singers, which started as a scratch choir in our first community opera but is now a staple of the company. Music and storytelling are at the heart of Wonderful Beast’s work.
Why we need your help
Wonderful Beast is a charity and all our work is not-for-profit. Without donations, we are not able to stage any of our productions. We have been granted a proportion of funding by Arts Council England and several charitable sources, and we are very grateful for the donations already received. However, actually getting the Arts Council funding is, as always, dependent on the applicant raising a given matching amount through other channels. Without this matched funding, the tour can't take place. This is why your donation, however small, really can make the difference and make The Last Woodwose happen - yours could be the penny that meets the figure we need!
With every production we stage, we host outreach projects for vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in local communities and with this play, we have put on our biggest outreach project yet, involving 300 primary school children from Suffolk state schools, taking them out of classrooms, into woodlands and inspiring them. You can find out more about this on our website.
What can you do?
Help us to raise the funds to bring this production to fruition. Your money will help to pay the artists and professionals, and fund props, costumes, lighting, venues and promotion.
Support free tickets for two schools’ matinees as the conclusion to our linked outreach project ‘I Am a Woodwose’. For these, we are giving away over 400 tickets to the children and families and volunteers who are taking part in the project. Kaliwood Forest School, whose home woodland is one of our venues, has also been invited free of charge with their families, most of whom are on low incomes.
Choose something from our Rewards List to the left to pick some fun things to put your name to.
The SEPTEMBER TOUR 2019 venues are:
- · Wed 11 Blackheath House (HighTide premiere)
- · Thurs 12 Blackheath (schools’ matinee)
- · Fri 13 St John’s Church Saxmundham (schools’ matinee/ public performance)
- · Sat 14 Kaliwood, Holton (free tickets for the forest school children)
- · Sun 15 Kaliwood (free tickets for the forest school children)
- · Tues 17 Staverton Park, Wantisden (public performance)
- · Weds 18 Staverton Park (public performance)
- · Thurs 19 St Michael’s Church, Framlingham (public performance)
- · Sat 21 Westhill Barn, Brandeston (public performance)
- · Sun 22 Westhill Barn (public performance)