wed 13/12/2017

Brighton Festival: Stella, Theatre Royal | reviews, news & interviews

Brighton Festival: Stella, Theatre Royal

Brighton Festival: Stella, Theatre Royal

A Victorian's spectacular transgender life, bleakly and obliquely told

I put on my make-up: Stella (Oscar Batterham) faces the world

A Victorian transgender celebrity is a fitting and timely subject for this Brighton Festival premiere. Writer-director Neil Bartlett turns Stella’s scandalous life into a stark horror story, marked by the regular, jarring crash of glass which sounds like splintering flashbulbs, mirror images breaking and jabbing at an older man (Richard Cant) whose hand is already slashed and bandaged, as he awaits a fatal knock on the door. A young man (Oscar Batterham), meanwhile, becomes a beautiful woman expecting a lover. Both are, or were, Stella, telling their tale in intercut, elliptical monologues.

The real Stella, pictured below, was otherwise known as Ernest Boulton, who alternated passing as a glamorous, touring female actress with plying for West End trade dressed as an equally unmissable prostitute, until she was arrested outside London’s Royal Strand Theatre after flirting with male audience members and using the ladies’ loo. A long affair with a devoted Tory MP, Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton, was revealed during a sensational trial; after being found innocent of intending sex with men, Stella parlayed the notoriety into further touring, while Pelham-Clinton likely committed suicide. Stella’s decline into battered, dying Ernest Blair, the final identity portrayed by Cant, sounds like a typical show business fall of fading looks and prospects, as well as an exhausted renouncement of female identity. Bartlett's explanation of this in the programme is perhaps too essential, the facts of the case buried deep.

Though Cant and Batterham’s physical resemblance makes the link between these two very different figures clear, Cant’s Ernest also seems to bear traces of the Arthur who Batterham’s Stella forlornly expects, as she dresses and makes herself up for some sort of audience. Cant recalls The Elephant Man’s makeup-free stage productions as a man psychologically twisted out of shape. Bandaged, vomiting, dying, exiled from the theatrical life and his desired sexuality, his bitter dignity constructs itself from the shredded indignity of his circumstances, teetering on a hysterical, spittle-flecked edge. His shards of proud, Wildean wit are more intact in Stella, whose beauty, glamour, hope and pride are embodied by Batterham. He gorgeously erases gender lines, though society won’t.

Even the pronouns in this review are loaded and mutable, showing the fraught terrain Bartlett explores. It’s questionable whether Stella’s 30-year career, and very different brush with her sexuality’s illegality to that of the martyred Oscar Wilde – ending not in Reading Gaol, but getting off scot-free – is the grim, broken tragedy Bartlett presents (though I bow to the letters and other ephemera from Stella’s life he explored in his research, alongside interviews with current transgender figures, whose words are slipped into the script). There’s certainly the sense of a bigger, bolder story between the sometimes opaque lines here.

Stella is both memorably, grimly fascinating and underpowered. The highs of this life aren’t attempted. What lingers are Cant’s helpless, self-lacerating rage and woundedness, and Batterham’s wholly androgynous beauty, which make Bartlett’s case better than words.  

Cant recalls 'The Elephant Man' as someone psychologically twisted out of shape

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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