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Queer theatre icon Neil Bartlett talks to Ben Walters about the fabulous and brave Stella, the infamous 19th Century gender-pioneer

Neil Bartlett is among the UK’s preeminent queer storytellers. For more than three decades, as writer, director, actor and more, he has mixed high and low forms, combined raw emotion with experimental technique, and animated venues from pubs to cathedrals.

In the early 1980s, Bartlett helped stage the UK’s first play addressing the AIDS crisis and created theatre mining centuries of queer history – a history he further explored in books such as Who Was That Man? (1988), about Oscar Wilde, and four novels. From 1994 to 2005, he was artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith, netting an OBE in the process. He’s also worked with the Royal National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Opera House and Royal Vauxhall Tavern. He collaborated repeatedly with Bette Bourne and Regina Fong and has a formidable history as a queer activist.

In 1981, Bartlett appeared in the very first London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), performing alongside Simon McBurney as the Beech Buoys, a Philippe Gaulier-inspired clown act. For LIFT 2016, Bartlett presents at Hoxton Hall his latest play, Stella, based on “the strange life and lonely death” of Ernest Boulton – aka Stella, one half of the cross-dressing duo Fanny and Stella who took the Victorian demimonde by storm and were sensationally put on trial in 1871.

Here he discusses what makes Stella so inspirational and timely a subject; the bodily power of the music hall as a setting; and the value of creating work that “adds to the available stock of queer reality”.

Ben Walters: You have described Ernest Boulton, also known as Stella, as a “truly remarkable person”. What is it you want to communicate to audiences about Stella?

Neil Bartlett:
I want to tell people Stella’s extraordinary story – because who knew that well over 100 years ago, queens and gender-pioneers were already exploring all the questions about identity and empowerment that we think we invented in the last decade?

But the show is very far from being a history lesson or biopic. I want people to meet Stella – to experience her amazing courage. It is one thing to be a dazzling young flamer out on the town in drag and full slap when you’re 20 and gorgeous; it is another thing entirely to survive disgrace and disaster and 30 years of touring and to still be yourself. That’s what fascinates me; the question of what it takes to really be yourself, and how that question maybe gets sharper as you get older. I know it does for me – and I’m now the same age as Stella was when she died.

Ben: With your play, Glenn Chandler’s play and Neil McKenna’s book, Fanny and Stella have become quite celebrated of late. What do you think it is about their story – and Stella’s in particular – that still resonates nearly 150 years later?

I first knew about Stella back when I was a baby-gay, in the 1980s, researching my very first book, Who Was That Man? – which was really a pioneering study of gay men’s lives in late nineteenth-century London and an exploration of the whole new possibility of a distinctively queer way of writing history.

I even made a show which featured Stella back then. With a bunch of other queens I put on a show about gay history for a festival called September in the Pink, which was a London-wide, GLC-funded lesbian and gay arts festival way back in 1983 (!!!!). The show was called Dressing Up, and in one scene we reconstructed one of Stella’s performances from 1868, when she was touring in the provinces with her best friend Fanny and her lover Lord Arthur Pelham Clinton. The scripts for that tour have survived and I went and dug them out of the British Library.

Back then, I think that what resonated most about Stella was her defiance – the way she really put herself out there as an effeminate gay men in the face of violent oppression, and got away with it, at least for a while. The early 1980s were a very dark time in London. I remember at the end of the show we had to advise the audience to walk back to tube station in groups as there was a threat of violence from local residents. Stella’s simple fabulousness was a reminder of all that we were fighting for and against.

Her courage – her sheer f***ing nerve – still resonates very strongly with me but now I think there is the whole additional fascination of how her story reflects our own explorations of queer gender identity and queer gender performance. Sometimes Stella was an effeminate gay man; sometimes she was a drag queen; sometimes she passed as a female sex worker; sometimes she passed as a married upper-middle-class lady; when she was in the dock at the Old Bailey, she even grew a moustache and successfully convinced the jury that she was just a nice if high-spirited middle-class straight boy. How did she do that – and, more to the point, what did that kind of life feel like? I am a great believer in queer history. It inspires us to be fabulous and brave, and it also adds to the available stock of queer reality.

Ben: Stella will be performed at the newly refurbished Hoxton Hall, which suits the period perfectly. What is it about music hall as a form – or indeed as a theatrical space – that enhances the telling of queer stories like Stella’s?

I am so excited about the show being at Hoxton Hall – one of London’s most extraordinary and least-known performance spaces – not least because the space was already up and running when Stella herself was treading the boards. British music hall and variety has the most amazing back-catalogue of major queer stars – Fred Barnes, Malcolm Scott, Douglas Byng – as well as the whole roster of the great female stars who achieved amazing freedom from the supposedly blanket misogyny of nineteenth and twentieth century culture.

I think queer stories thrive when the body is foregrounded and the music hall was all about performers walking out in front of an audience and presenting themselves as their own artwork – their voices, their bodies, their outfits and their personalities. It’s all about a conversation with the audience – there’s no fourth wall, ever. I really want Stella to tap into that heritage. Plus, the stage at Hoxton is just so beautiful, and so intimate.

Ben: You’ve been at the forefront of queer storytelling, on stage and on the page, for more than three decades. If the Neil Bartlett of 1983 could see the UK of 2016, what would he be most delighted by? And what would horrify him?

Oh blimey! I think he would be most delighted by the simple but astonishing fact that his older self can do the shopping arm in arm with his partner – who’s just had knee replacement surgery – without anyone being appalled by the sight of two grey-haired queers or insulting them or threatening to bash them. In 1983, that would have been unimaginable where we live. Thank God that we all fought so hard – and so cleverly – to achieve that change.

What would horrify him? The fact that two women still can’t do that safely. And the expression on George Osborne’s face as he explains that late capitalism is really a wonderful, life-enhancing thing and we should all trust him and his fiends to run the world and keep us safe.

Ben: What are you looking forward to after Stella?

In the short term, performing at Duckie’s big new show Lady Malcolm’s Servants’ Ball at the Bishopsgate Institute on June 23 and 24. In the long term, working on a new book and some big new theatre pieces for 2017 and 2018. And sharing our twenty-eighth year together with the impeccably handsome Mr James Gardiner.

Stella is on at Hoxton Hall from June 1 to 18 as part of LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre). Full details at liftfestival.com. Neil Bartlett’s website is at neil-bartlett.com


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