“She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France…” — Henry VI, Part 3
Fort Worth — Shakespeare’s brave, trauma-wracked warriors are back again at Amphibian Stage in Fort Worth. And this time, the warrior at the center of the story is a woman, and a queen.
In 2018, military veteran and actor/playwright Stephan Wolfert brought his solo show Cry Havoc! to Amphibian, blending his own wartime experience with the portrayal of combat soldiers in Shakespeare. Along with the play, Wolfert brought his nonprofit program De-Cruit, which puts “Shakespeare and science” to work helping veterans reverse-engineer the training they received as recruits being wired for war.
De-Cruit sessions aren’t a “one-off” but a longer-term commitment working with veterans using theater performance and recognized therapeutic techniques for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the nearly 18 months since Cry Havoc! played at Amphibian, artistic director Kathleen Culebro has become a regular at veterans courts in Fort Worth, and prepares programming every week for the De-Cruit classes offered free at the theater on Monday evenings. “I can’t say enough about what Amphibian has been to those veterans every Monday night,” says Wolfert.
Now comes She-Wolf, Amphibian’s world premiere of another Shakespearean riff on power, vengeance, and the spirit-mangling nature of war, adapted by Wolfert and his wife, actress Dawn Stern. The result is an action-packed, cohesive script pulled together from the scattered scenes and dialogue Shakespeare gave to Margaret of Anjou, a young French princess who married Henry VI and became Queen of England.
Margaret who? Wolfert and Stern remember there were “a lot of no’s” from producers before Culebro gave them an enthusiastic “yes.”
Wolfert remembers the typical reaction. “’So, it’s not about the Wars of the Roses?’ ‘No, just Margaret of Anjou.’ ‘Who’s she?’” In Shakespeare’s history of the bloody, bloody struggle between the Houses of York and Lancaster for possession of the English crown (think Game of Thrones, only possibly more vicious), says Wolfert, “Margaret is in so many key, key scenes. Margaret changes the trajectory of the Wars of the Roses in both the play and in actual history — and not once, but multiple times.”
Stern, who plays Margaret in She-Wolf with Wolfert directing (and playing multiple parts as well), says recently she’s been comparing her to champion gymnast Simone Biles. “She’s broken all previous gymnasts’ records; she’s has more medals than anyone.” Yet until recently, Biles had kept going — and winning — without much recognition beyond the gymnastics world. “We hear all about Michael Phelps and his five medals, but here’s this tiny powerhouse winning everything,” Stern says.
Margaret of Anjou is the only Shakespeare character who appears in four consecutive plays —Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3, and in Richard III. We meet her as a wild-child of 15 years old, found wandering a French battlefield and taken prisoner by the British nobleman Suffolk, who falls hard for her within minutes — “she’s hot and brilliant,” says Wolfert with a grin. Suffolk (a married man) hatches a plan to wed Margaret to weak, pious King Henry VI, mostly as a way to keep her within arm’s reach.
The English nobility scorned the poor, dowerless daughter of the King of Naples, never dreaming this foreign girl would lead armies and play a major role in keeping a civil war going for years in the second half of the 15th century.
Wolfert remembers noting Margaret’s presence in a production of Richard III that changed his life — galvanizing him into leaving the military, training as an actor, and discovering Shakespeare’s theater as an incredible resource for combating post-war trauma.
“She stood out to me, this woman, because Richard didn’t kill her,” Wolfert laughs. “He kills children, he kills his own brothers — so why does he stop at her? I didn’t know much about Shakespeare then, but once I looked into it, I realized that Richard sees himself in Margaret. She’s an outsider like Richard, different like him, ready to kill like him, really hated like him.
“A study done by a master sergeant in the 1980s showed that combat soldiers consistently feel a greater connection to both their comrades and the enemy than they do to their own families. I think Margaret and Richard have that kind of bond.” Even before she and Richard III clash, she’s very aware of him. “Where’s that valiant crook-back prodigy, Dicky your boy?” she sneers to his father York, her prisoner.
In short, Margaret has a remarkable presence in the universe of Shakespeare’s history plays.
“The timing seems so apropos right now for [this] play,” says Stern. “Margaret was an immigrant queen, an outsider, and we developed her story with a lot of help from a lot of woman, including women veterans. In Shakespeare. much of the actual, historical woman isn’t there. Margaret was highly educated — one of her tutors was a scholar and a jousting judge. She was very physical. And in the world she came from, women had power. Both her mother and grandmother were rulers, not just her father.”
But when she arrived at the English court (in Shakespeare, Margaret calls it a “nest of scorpions”) she ran up against a very different attitude about what women — even queens — could do. English queens, says Stern, had “the duty to bear male children, heirs, and the duty of what they called intercession.” By interceding — asking for the king’s clemency or mercy in a variety of situations — the queen’s function was “to allow a king to change his mind without un-manning him, without having him lose his power. We’ve seen that in our First Ladies in the past, but when they started to be lawyers and have their own platforms, that was quite a different reaction, wasn’t it?”
Margaret’s vision for herself was different. As the queen of a weak king, she saw her duty to protect her new family and its power, especially when, after eight years, she bore King Henry a son, Edward. But she paid a high price for her strength and independence. Was Margaret, living through a high-alert era of neverending conflict and battle, experiencing something like the mental and emotional trauma of modern combat veterans?
“Yes, she definitely is suffering from PTSD,” says Wolfert, “both in the Shakespeare world and in her historical world. She’s taken after battle at 15 and married off. She puts her own son into combat at the age of 13 or 14, not as a leader, but a soldier in combat—at a much earlier age than most boys were sent to war. Edward, the son, became fairly bloodthirsty. By age 16 or so, he was dragging people out of sanctuary and beheading them himself. The Wars of the Roses degenerated to a point where there were no rules at all.
“So Margaret [eventually] loses it; she kills her enemy the Duke of York [Richard III’s father], but not by sending him to the gallows. She goes berserk, beheading him and putting his head on the spikes of the city gates. And that, by our definition and from psychologist Jonathan Shay who wrote Achilles in Vietnam, is the clear sign of a ‘berserker’ [a soldier in a killing cycle who can’t draw back from that mindset].”
“O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!” exclaims York before his death. Margaret both gives—and takes—some of Shakespeare’s most vitriolic words. Yet Stern adds that “Margaret wasn’t more vicious or violent than any of the men who were fighting…but the reaction was quite different when she was doing it.”
Before York is executed, adds Wolfert, he rants to and about Margaret in a speech that “has something like 18 sexually based comments. York doesn’t speak like that to [king] Henry when he challenges him, only to her—and when Margaret stands up for herself, we’re all thinking ‘Oh, see, she’s such a…these women, you know.’”
Over centuries of Shakespeare productions onstage, Margaret’s role in the history plays has often been trimmed or eliminated entirely — and her power made almost comic by a portrayal that, says Wolfert, presents her as “an ancient witch, a Sweeney Todd character — the bus driver on South Park!” [The historic Margaret was mostly in her 20s and 30s as a wartime leader.] Stern remembers reading Shakespeare plays and watching film or TV versions as a girl in southern Illinois farm country, far from any professional theater. “And right when they got to the women’s part I was waiting for, it wasn’t there! They’d cut it out.”
This adaptation has a cast of four: in addition to Stern and Wolfert, She-Wolf features another military veteran and classically trained actor, James Edward Becton, and actor Drew Ledbetter, who heads the literary department of The Coop, a newly formed off-Broadway company in NYC. It’s been worked on and workshopped, often with the participation of women veterans, who, says Wolfert, sometimes got him to realize he needed to get out of the way.
“I kept imposing my own gender-based biases on the plays,” he says. “I had in mind that it was all about the trauma. She was 15, a prisoner of war, so it felt natural to impose ideas of rape or Stockholm syndrome.” But even as a teenager, Margaret presents as quick-witted and strong, not primarily a victim. Yes, she’s a prisoner, but she and Suffolk develop what Stern sees as an “immediate, profound connection” — and from then on, even through great trauma, Margaret remains powerful and (at least partly) in charge of her fate.
“We wanted to let Margaret talk to us…to put real truth onstage both in the script and in the actors’ portrayals. The [women] veterans were telling us ‘I can find my story in this, it’s right there for me, Shakespeare is laying it out.’ We found that if we took away the war and the men’s rivalries, and extracted and distilled Margaret’s story, women began to identify themselves and their experiences.”
From here, the play goes to Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, where Wolfert says more than 100 women veterans have signed on to see it. And there’s a run of three plays — She-Wolf, The Head of Richard (which completes Margaret and Richard's story), and a two-person version of Macbeth — scheduled for an Off-Broadway run in 2021.
“And when that show goes to New York,” Wolfert adds, “Amphibian’s name will be right there with it. When Kathleen said ‘We’ll produce that!’ my first thought was something like, ‘How dare you believe in me? Now I have to write stuff!’ But for us with Cry Havoc!, for Kate Hamill in [Jason O’Connell and Brenda Withers’] Cyrano premiere, and for many other artists who have been here — we’re all carrying that banner now, talking about Amphibian.”
And about Margaret of Anjou — four centuries on, finally getting her due.