Tag Archives: Neil Bartlett

“Stella” at Hoxton Hall

The life of Ernest Boulton, the infamous Victorian cross-dressing entertainer, is a fertile source for fiction. Barbara Ewing’s book is recommended and a previous play, Fanny and Stella, made light work of this fascinating history. Neil Bartlett’s new piece is a more serious affair, deftly plumbing issues of gender identity and politics with sensitivity and intelligence.

Bartlett describes his play as a ‘one-man-show for two bodies’. Such succinctness is a boon for me as describing this bold and rich work isn’t easy. Following what’s going on is fine (read the free programme for the biography) but, while the older Ernest talks about the past and present, the younger version dresses for a night out as Stella and contemplates the future. It’s a deliberately fluid affair. Add direct addresses to the audience along with the characters advising one another and you have to have your wits about you.
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To play directly alongside another performer who has the same role, just at a different age, must make the job peculiar for a performer. There are two brilliant actors here: Richard Cant and Oscar Batterham are remarkable for their focus and synchronicity. In attendance is a third, silent figure, played by David Carr, who serves (to my somewhat literal mind) as a memento mori: helping with make-up or aiding the frail Boulton awaiting a hospital appointment.

The piece’s construction demands further study. Scripts of plays Stella performed in are used. Interviews were conducted with transpersons today and some of these “found their way into Stella’s mouth”. The aim is to show a character on his/her own terms. Boulton’s potential as a pioneering transperson isn’t essential – it’s transformation per se that is the focus.

The various roles that Boulton enacted, literally on stage or as a sex worker, for example, enforce the theme of fluidity. As such, Bartlett’s play is radically political, his independent thinking inspirational. Yet the overriding theme is when the writing really takes off and we see Stella as a meditation on life and death. With its reflections on the passing of time, and how this transforms us all, this play is full of good, old-fashioned wisdom.

Until 18 June 2016

Part of the LIFT Festival 2016

Production photograph by Dom Agius. Artwork ©Fred Spalding, reproduced by courtesy of Essex Record Office

“Or You Could Kiss Me” at The National Theatre

A London theatre audience can be a tough crowd – we think we’ve seen it all before. Puppets acting with humans in plays? Of course. Gay puppets? Plenty of times. But The Handspring Puppet Company (of Warhorse fame) can still do something to stun even the jaded. The puppets in their new show Or You Could Kiss Me are so alive, even the most cynical will be profoundly moved.

Devised with writer and director Neil Bartlett, Or You Could Kiss Me is the story of lovers at the end of their lives. Ravaged by illness and old age, they struggle with the knowledge that they will soon be parted.

Set in the future, the production uses the almost uncanny device of placing puppeteers on stage to control their fictional counterparts. Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, along with their ensemble, work Mr A and Mr B. What this must do for their psyches is difficult to say. Their bravery is clear to all.

But it is the puppets that are the stars. Bartlett’s achievement is to have written a play for them. The ensemble cast perform with the flawless choreography essential for their art to be convincing. Their concern for the characters they operate radiates to the audience; every gesture is articulated with authenticity.

Or You Could Kiss Me is invested with such intensity that at times it feels almost intrusive. Alongside the puppeteers, Adjoa Andoh performs a variety of roles, joining the audience in watching this painful momento mori. She is the prologue, who recites Ovid, and later appears as a doctor, lecturing us about the breakdown of memory in the sick and old. In both instances she represents a common humanity that cannot fail to speak to anyone who has loved and, by extension, feared loss. Or You Could Kiss Me is unforgettable theatre.

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Until 17 November 2010

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 6 October 2010 for The London Magazine