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Stella (LIFT Festival 2016, Hoxton Hall, London): Review

stella Almost ready. Richard Cant (left) and Oscar Batterham (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Dom Agius.

Stella is a haunting dream of loss, longing, and identity. Tragedy has never been so complex, fabulous, or fracturing.

Ernest Boulton sits in his run-down flat, waiting for the knock of a taxi that has come to take him somewhere. To pass the time, he talks to himself and remembers when he was Stella, who is best remember as one half of the Victorian era’s infamous duo of female impersonators, Fanny and Stella. As past and present collide, Ernest’s life is revealed as more than frocks and scandal, but a life where identity and acceptance is a luxury worth fighting for.

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Pretty young thing. Richard Cant (left) and Oscar Batterham (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Dom Agius.

Writing

Neil Bartlett gets LIFT Festival 2016 off to a wonderfully queer start. We have this preconception that homosexuality and queer identity was tough and suppressed in the mire of Victorian high morals. But Boulton’s life paints a different story, one that not only questions our perceptions of the Victorian LGBT community, but provokes a deeper challenge about what we think about gender and identity in modern terms (for a bit more information about Boulton’s life and Bartlett’s interest and inspiration for Stella, read Chris Bridge’s interview with Bartlett in The Gay UK).

Bartlett’s Stella imagines Boulton at the end of his life, at the relatively young age of 56, as he waits to face his final fate, but also as the just turned 21 year old who is about the encounter the scandal that will transform his life. On one side we have a reflection of an old man contemplating his life, his loves, his losses, and his demise, and on the other a youth who is neurotic, demanding, dangerous, and exceptional, ranting and desperately wanting acceptance for who they are. The brilliance of Stella’s writing is Bartlett’s incredible ability for character writing. A deep empathy and interest drives Bartlett’s exploration into both sides of Boulton’s identity, and is written with an intensely tender embodiment of person. Both Ernest and Stella are loquacious, vibrant, and unapologetic people that are joys to be in the company of. Bartlett’s Victorians are far from fusty epitaphs, but are sparking personalities who lived, and lived fabulously.

Structurally, Bartlett cannily plays with these two parallel stories to contrast one aspect of Boulton’s life against the other, causing a stirring, heartbreaking, and deep look at being queer in an age where it was criminal to be so. At times, the stories fuse to create a crushing and gripping symbiosis that completes Boulton as a person who achieved something extraordinary whilst losing so much in terms of what he had and of who he was as a person. Then there are other little fantastic flourishes like The Attendant as a silent, stealthy, and encroaching reaper, that pushes an aching sense of tragedy to Stella.

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Queen living. Oscar Batterham as Young Stella in ‘Stella’. Photograph: Courtesy of Dom Agius.

Stella is a very ethereal and dreamy play, with plenty of ambiguity and fluid trains of thought and narrative lines of enquiry. There’s a definite lilt of quiet surreality that can potentially disorientate if you don’t have your wits about you, especially when identities are enigmatically separated from selves for a good portion of Stella. If you don’t click as to what’s going on too quickly, you could find yourself a little lost, especially as Bartlett leaves a lot part-formed, unresolved, and ephemeral questions throughout. This is pretty much the only criticism for Stella as it turns it into something that is more difficult and challenging to settle into than your usual fayre. But at the same time this strange tenor, if it doesn’t unbalance your attention, catastrophically sweeps you deep into this heart-wrenching swan song.

At the end of it, with your countenance elegantly fractured, you leave Stella with a completely new appreciation for an LGBT legend, but also questions how we define gender and identity on a personal and a societal level, and what that means to a person and their life. Quietly provocative and transformative, Stella is a blissful and ponderous dream about being human.

Direction & Production

For starters, Hoxton Hall is pretty much the perfect venue for Stella. Not only is it a stunning place, the fact that it used to be the very type of music hall that Stella would have performed in brings a spectral specialness to Stella: Hoxton Hall in itself a stunning and haunting set for the show. But that doesn’t meant that the team behind Stella have little to do. Both Rick Fisher’s lighting and Dinah Mullen’s sound are strange and oppressive, adding a capricious and unsettling tensions at pointsAre the lights and the deafening crunches the flashes of public interest or adoring fans, or the shocking fissures of breaking bone, tearing silk, or shattering glass? They add a pointed but beautifully as ambiguous terror that punctures itself into the vague and overarching themes that Bartlett plays with in the text.

Bartlett’s direction is all about ensuring that the complexity of the characters stories are there for the audiences to drown in. Bartlett leaves their actors to work their bewitching and intense magic so we can connect with them completely and enjoy their enchanting and encompassing company. But at the same time, there’s always a deliberate pace that quietly nudges Stella along, making the 80 minutes without an interval seem like a snap of time. There are other incredible little techniques that elevate Stella into something that is far deeper than you might otherwise realise, like the fact that Ernest and Stella’s eyes never meet and they never acknowledge each other’s presence on the stage, even when it seems their imagined conversations collide as if they’re talking to each other.

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Girl in waiting. Richard Cant as Old Stella in ‘Stella’. Photograph: Courtesy of Dom Agius.

Cast

It’s really difficult to know what to say about Richard Cant as the older Ernest and Oscar Batterham as the young Stella because both give utterly astonishing performances. Both are completely convincing to the point where it’s devastating to watch them come face to face with their fates. You can’t take your eyes off either of them at any moment in Stella, as both captivate with broken diva egos that expose raw vulnerabilities. They are both something spectacular and you can never imagine that there is any performance of Stella where either of them give any less than their total all: tremendous performances that leave gorgeous bruises on your memory.

Even David Carr deserves praise as silent The Attendant. He slowly glides around the stage with a steely dominance: a constant and ever waiting antagonist that stalks with an overwhelming presence. Despite wordless, Carr is still as integral a part of Stella as Cant and Batterham, and completes Bartlett’s opulent darkness.

Verdict

A spectral and deeply affecting spectacle, Stella is a breathtaking curtain call for a life celebrated but misunderstood.

Stella plays at Hoxton Hall, N1 6SH, as part of the LIFT Festival 2016 until 18 June 2016. Tickets are £18 (concessions available). For more information about the festival and to book tickets, visit www.liftfestival.com.
This review was made possible by Theatre Bloggers. For more information about the group, please visit theatrebloggers.co.uk.

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