Last night Richard, Cathy and I headed to the Shoreditch/Hoxton area of East London to take in Neil Bartlett's new play, Stella, currently running at the restored vaudeville-era Hoxton Hall as part of the LIFT Festival. I have been a fan of Bartlett's writing ever since I read his book Who Was That Man?, his cultural history of gay London as filtered through the symbolic figure of Oscar Wilde. I've also taught his play In Extremis, which also has a Wilde connection, focusing as it does on the palmist that the playwright apparently consulted just prior to his arrest.
Like In Extremis, Stella is a mostly presentational play, composed of two linked monologues spoken directly to the audience by the eponymous title character: one when she's 21 and a coquettish cross-dresser awaiting a proposal from the wealthy older man, Arthur, who keeps her; and the other when, having reverted to his birth name of Ernest, Stella, now dying of throat cancer, awaits the cab that will take him to the hospital where he'll spend his dying days. The play is based on the historical personage of Ernest Boulton, who under the stage name of Stella appeared in countless female roles in 19th-century melodramas on stages around England similar to Hoxton Hall, and who also cruised regularly in the West End in full drag--apparently with the full support of her mother.
Bartlett draws on this archival record to sketch out a dual portrait of a contemporary of Wilde's who, though lesser known, likewise understood the porous borders between illusion and reality, art and life, and who in many respects negotiated those borders better than Saint Oscar (Stella was also arrested and accused of being a practising sodomite, but was found not guilty). The play itself is largely static in its dramaturgy, but the writing is remarkable, and the two performances by Richard Cant (as Old Stella) and Oscar Batterham (as Young Stella) simply superb. (David Carr also appears as The Attendant, a silent but symbolically significant supernumerary role.) Then there was the simple wonder of being in the Hoxton Hall space, whose wood-panelled history and proximate intimacy was marred only by the astonishing gall of the woman in the row in front of us taking multiple pictures of the stage action on her iPad.
After the actors' curtain calls Bartlett himself appeared and, referencing the recent tragic events in Orlando, asked the audience to join in a moment of silent vigil and remembrance for the victims. It was a solemn ending to a powerful play, but it was not the end of our encounter with Bartlett, as afterwards at dinner in the neighbourhood we had the luck to be seated at a table near to him and his party.
Needless to say, we took the opportunity to offer our warmest congratulations.