The Unravelling Fantasia Of Miss H

A spirited operatic story of Yorkshire resistance heads to Wakefield and Leeds this week
March 6, 2023

A new contemporary opera called The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H. is coming to Wakefield and Leeds this week, telling the subversive story of Mary Frances Heaton who was committed to an asylum in Victorian times but used her extraordinary embroidery to challenge the authorities.

She was arrested for a breach of peace in 1837, and committed to an asylum after confronting Doncaster’s authorities. The story goes that Mary stood up one Sunday in the parish church of Doncaster, and interrupted the sermon, accusing the preacher of being “a whited sepulchre, a thief, a villain, a liar and a hypocrite” after he didn’t pay for music lessons she’d delivered for his daughter. Mary Frances Heaton’s words saw her arrested for disturbing the peace and declared by the judge to be “a lunatic insane and dangerous idiot”.

Mary was committed to the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum in Wakefield and then spent the next 41-years in institutions. She died in 1878, aged 77, and was buried in a pauper’s grave. But in a remarkable story of resistance the spirited Yorkshirewoman challenged society’s view of mental health through a long campaign - using embroidery to stand-up for her rights. Mary’s embroidered protest samplers were discovered in the asylum many years later and this new arts project will bring to life her mission and make it relevant for contemporary audiences.

The production is an experimental piece, from Stitched-Up Theatre, and is a poetic portrayal of a Victorian woman imprisoned by a society intent on control. The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H. is an original musical score and a libretto based on Mary's embroidered words and surviving medical records. The composition is by soprano Red Gray and Sarah Nicolls with her inside-out piano, and is touring Yorkshire following a successful run at the Arcola Theatre and Tête a Tête Festival in London.

An exhibition and a radical stitching workshop will accompany the opera’s 2023 tour of northern venues. As part of this, a Yorkshire-based textile artist called Hayley Mills-Styles will work with community groups in Halifax, Doncaster, Wakefield, and Leeds to introduce them to the themes of the show - using embroidery to explore contemporary issues around identity, community & mental health.

The dates are: Tuesday 7th March; Theatre Royal Wakefield. Thursday 9th March; Left Bank Leeds. To book CLICK HERE.

Soprano Red Gray said: “We wanted to honour Mary Frances Heaton’s story by telling her tale through her own words. The way she stitched her defiant protests into beautiful pieces of embroidery is really inspiring, powerful and will connect with contemporary audiences. We think it’s a spirited story of resistance, with its roots in Wakefield and Doncaster but with powerful themes around identity, mental health and standing up to authorities that will resonate with people here.”

Red added: “This production captures the great irony that it was embroidery - a pastime encouraged to keep women poised and impassive: heads down, hands busy and mouths shut - that was used by Mary to subvert the order. Mary’s struggle to hold on to her identity and reach the outside world speaks across the years. Her outrage at a corrupt system urges us to ask ‘How much have things really changed?’”

Textile artist Hayley Mills-Styles said: “I’m thrilled to be working with Stitched Up Theatre on The Unravelling Fantasia of Miss H. This beautiful opera uncovers an important and timely story about women, control and protest. Using fabric and thread I’m going to work with community groups to explore exactly how textiles can tell stories and help bring to life Mary Frances Heaton’s really remarkable resistance. We can’t wait to get started.”

The West Yorkshire History Archives Centre in Wakefield is supporting the show. A private event on February 9th will launch the exhibition and give people a chance to learn more about the project and celebrate Mary France Heaton’s extraordinary life. The Mental Health Museum in Wakefield is also supporting the project. Jane Stockdale, Curator, said: “Mary’s powerful testimonies are brought to life through this new opera, it’s an incredible way to explore the history of mental health in this region and think about what we can learn from her ideas and protest in 2023 too. It’s one of our region’s most important stories and we hope this tour will help new audiences understand why these issues matter and inspire new ways of thinking about mental health.”

Movement director and performer Kate Webster said: “Working on this show became a fitting reminder that society still seeks to silence those who speak out and refuse to accept injustice. This spirit is told through words, music and physical theatre - weaving Mary’s story into the very fabric of the production. We are so excited to bring Mary’s story back home to Yorkshire.”