The former Artistic Director of Lyric Hammersmith, Neil Bartlett, whose early works include Sarrasine and A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, returns to familiar source material for this new play and his first to grace London’s stages in three years. Bartlett’s book, Who Was That Man?, published nearly 30 years ago, portrays the real life story of a 19th-century cross-dresser and occasional sex worker, Ernest Boulton, born in Tottenham in 1848. Boulton’s alter ego, Stella, was sensationally tried and acquitted of indecency before ‘making disgrace her profession’ by touring variety halls in a drag act for 30 years, until her beauty faded and bookings dried up. Her lover was young Tory MP and aristocrat Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton.
As the audience files into Hoxton Hall, a lone figure sits nervously on an empty stage, staring doe-eyed into the middle distance. His fragile state is heightened by the sound of flash bulbs shattering. There’s a loud knock at the door. Is it death? Or the imminent arrival of a taxi to take him to the hospital?
This memory play is essentially a two-hander meditating on a gregarious life coloured by frivolity, daring and bitterness. Continual references to broken mirrors elude to refracted gender identities, as two actors play out twin depictions of the same figure. One, a melancholic man at the end of his life, the other his younger, more highly-strung self – a shock of platinum blonde hair, trussed up in ‘silk, metal and bone’, excitedly discussing plans for her 21st birthday that evening.
Stella’s lover, Arthur (bald and and unattractive though he is), sends Stella into a tailspin when he fails to turn up for her birthday, rattling her ebullient veneer. What is all this effort (the powder, the lipstick, the jewels) for? Who is she without an audience?
Bartlett’s research wasn’t just historical – he conducted conversations with living people ‘who perform or live in clothes and bodies different to those of the gender-role they were assigned to at birth’.
Richard Cant beautifully captures all of Ernest’s loneliness and frailty, brought on by subsequent years of hardship and a string of failed romances. Bitterly and defiantly, he laments constant questions about what signals his ‘transformation’ into womanhood – is it the hair? The shoes? The rings? As if two binary identities exist in tandem.
Oscar Batterham’s Stella effectively captures the experience of being the constant subject of onlookers’ gaze and scrutiny. A recalled dream, in which everyone customarily stares but only remarks ‘how lovely she is’, is particularly poignant.
Stella will be performing as part of LIFT 2016 until 18 June 2016.
Hoxton Hall, 130 Hoxton Street, N1 6SH, UK +44 20 7684 0060
By Georgia McKay