HAVE you ever wondered who was “The Coppergate Woman”, whose remains are displayed in a glass case in the JORVIK Viking Centre in York after being discovered in a shallow pit by the River Foss.
One of only two full skeletons on show from the archaeological dig, she features in model form in the Coppergate visitor attraction, her identity unknown, but now she is to be “brought back to life in modern-day York” in this summer’s York Theatre Royal community project.
Directed by creative director Juliet Forster and associate artist John R Wilkinson, the storytelling show is being written by Hull playwright Maureen Lennon, fleshing out the very barest of bones for four interlinking stories to be performed by a community ensemble of between 80 and 100 from July 30 to August 6 on the main stage.
This week, working in partnership with JORVIK, the Theatre Royal issued a call-out for people to participate in the production, both backstage and on stage, where the company will be led by a yet-to-be-confirmed professional actor in the title role.
Performers, musicians and those keen to work in stage management, wardrobe, lighting, props, marketing, fundraising and front-of-house are asked to visit yorktheatreroyal.co.uk for details of how to sign up for roles on and off stage.
Explaining how she came to write the play, Maureen says: “Juliet approached me to say they were thinking of doing a community show that engaged with York’s Viking history and how stories of our ancestors might bridge the gap between their world and our world. How might they have an impact on how we live now, and what could we learn from each other?”
Juliet recalls: “The idea came from thinking about the importance of storytelling in our world and how do we draw people together. The Vikings were storytellers and I started thinking about the Vikings because it’s an area we as a theatre had not explored before and is a very interesting part of our history.
“I’d seen Maureen’s early play Bare Skin On Briny Waters at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe and invited her company, Bellow Theatre, to bring it to the Theatre Royal Studio in 2018. She felt the right fit for the play we wanted to do this summer, but we’d never met in person until Monday this week!”
Maureen was delighted to receive the Theatre Royal commission. “Growing up in Hull, I used to really love going to JORVIK as a child, when although it was a museum, it felt like going to a theme park,” she says. “I hadn’t been back for years, but then revisited it to research for the play and I got really interested in the Coppergate Woman.”
Being confronted by her skeleton was a real example of two worlds meeting, says Maureen. “That’s the privilege of storytelling: we get to imagine her story, thinking about who she might have been and what she might say of our world.
“She’s in our world now, whether she likes it or not. I wondered if she was lonely. I wondered who she had been and what she would think about me staring at her now. It felt intimate and yet so much about her was unknown.
“I wanted to give her the power to look at us just like I was looking at her in that moment. I wanted her to speak – although obviously in reality I’m glad she didn’t.”
This summer’s play was always envisaged as a project that talked about community, togetherness, and the power of storytelling in our societies, in light of the pandemic, says Maureen.
“That was the jumping-off point for The Coppergate Woman, which weaves myth with contemporary stories. The Vikings had an end-of-the-world story in their mythology, Ragnarok, and in our tale the Coppergate Woman is awakened to try to help four people of York live through their own version of Ragnarok. It’s about hope and heartache and loss – and starting again, together.”
Co-director John R Wilkinson says: “It’s been five years since we last did one of our community plays, but given all that’s gone on in the past couple of years, it’s really necessary and heartening to be able to bring people together again, this time through a storytelling piece.
“I would argue that storytelling has become a slightly underappreciated artform, so it’s interesting to be able to explore it in a community play.”
Maureen says: “Storytelling has a flexibility to it that’s perfect for this show, because it’s not a show about one person but about the people of York, who take part in the story as a chorus of ‘Norns’, storytellers who operate in a similar way to the Fates in Greek mythology.”
Juliet rejoins: “That makes it distinctly different from any community production we’ve done in the past. We’ve gone back to the bare bones to conjure a world just with words. That act of coming together collectively to tell a story is something we’ve been really lacking.”
John concurs: “There seems to be a trend for trying to compete with streamed shows, but theatre should be about accentuating its strengths: that live interconnection between performers and the audience through direct storytelling.”
The last word goes to Maureen, who says: “The Coppergate Woman is a chance to tell a different story about the Viking community when we tend to associate them with invasion, violence and horns.”
The Vikings built bridges in the city, just as her community play builds bridges between York’s past and present through storytelling.
Tickets for The Coppergate Woman will go on sale next month with more details to follow.
Copyright of The Press, York