The woodwose is a curiosity harboured by many churches in rural Suffolk. Mysterious carvings of these wildmen-of-the-woods can be found on the staves of stone baptismal fonts or as reliefs adorning the porch of a church. Believed to date from around the 15th century, little is known about these ‘hirsute manimals’, all to be found brandishing clubs, some in combat with a wyvern. Most visitors to these churches are completely unaware of the woodwoses hidden within, and their significance in East Anglian folklore. So, who is the woodwose?
The Association for Suffolk Museums has teamed up with Aldeburgh based Arts Organisation, Wonderful Beast, to explore the legend of the Woodwose in Suffolk.
Woodwose: from the Old English wude-wāsa – wildman of the woods
Formed in 1997, Wonderful Beast is the theatre company dramatizing myths, legends, folk and fairy tales for all ages. It has staged productions and events at the Gate, Southwark Playhouse, the Almeida, Jacksons Lane, Wiltons Music Hall, toured Scotland, performed and workshopped in India, and toured nationally in collaboration with English Touring Opera.
It continues to commission new works including community operas and outreach projects, recently touring two new productions, Orla and the Sun and Orla’s Moon, for 0–3-year-olds and their parents/carers in venues across Suffolk.
The company has a special interest in outreach, delivering inter-generational performances, children’s work-shops, singing for dementia sufferers, and runs an amateur choir, the Wonderful Beast Singers.
The Last Woodwose, by Thea Smiley
Born of Return of the Wildman (also Smiley), a new production, ‘The Last Woodwose’, is in development following a highly successful reading with actor Diana Quick in the High Tide festival 2018.
The character of the Woodwose is a strong, dignified, mature woman, and a challenger of conventional ideas of femininity and beauty. Her language is entwined with nature writing and poetry, the play merging drama, storytelling and music, expressing a certain cross-genre wildness. The fairy tale threatening forest is inverted, highlighting instead environmental and ecological dangers of extinction from deforestation. East Anglian legend is woven into the story, reinvigorating old tales and infusing the play with its own local and historical potency.
Both plays are inspired by local legends and symbolism. The Wildman was a man of the sea, progressing naturally to The Last Woodwose, a play about a wild woman of the woods. The figure of the woodwose is a creature from British and European folklore, particularly resonant in East Anglia. Representations appear widely across the region in church carvings (notably at Saxmundham, Halesworth, Framlingham and Orford churches) as well as in tapestry and stained glass (a particularly beautiful stained glass female woodwose resides in the chapel of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge).
Alongside the production, Wonderful Beast is leading a large outreach project in partnership with the AfSM and four local museums and Churches. Saxmundham Museum, The Lanman Museum, Orford Museum and Halesworth Museum will be working with their local church and schools to develop and deliver the ‘I Am a Woodwose’ outreach project, which focuses on the mysterious medieval woodwose carvings that appear prolifically on church fonts and porches locally.
A two day engagement will take children on a historical and cultural journey, beginning with visiting partner churches and museums and then translating their experiences into imaginative form, with a guided creative sessions at school. The second day involves a woodland expedition exploring the ecology and the future of our local woods and finishing with a making session with a local artist. The project culminates in two funded schools’ matinees in September, for children who have taken part.
The production will premier as an open-air performance on the Blackheath Estate, Friston, as part of Aldeburgh’s HighTide Festival 2019, followed by a site-specific tour to local woodlands, including the ancient Staverton and two ‘woodwose’ churches.
If you would like to know more about this project, please contact email@example.com