VFD Creative Director Lyall Hakaraia reviews Lift Festival's play, Stella, and invites reflections from contemporary queer performers Kevin Le Grand Bailor and Lewis G. Burton: What makes a great play, performance, theatrical experience? Is it timing, delivery, words and rhythm, glorious settings or lack thereof? All of these elements in measure help to create a magic that can rivet an audience and submerge them in emotion, this balance has been beautifully achieved in the new Neil Bartlett play, Stella, at Hoxton Hall.
The play centres on the life of notorious late 19th Century female impersonator Stella and is performed in two strands; one by the young Stella who is giddily readying herself to celebrate her 21st birthday, and the other by an older Stella in her fifties who has resigned herself to treatment for the cancer that she expects to be the final chapter of her life.
The play opens with the older Stella (forcefully played by the exemplary Richard Cant) in a heightened emotional state as she twitches between lamentation of her youth and loves, her terror of going to hospital, and haughty recollections of the downward spiral of her life. Cant’s venerable and conflicted Stella is delivered in an all-too-believable manner as she emotionally recounts events in her life that have brought her to teeter on the precipice.
The young Stella (inhabited by Oscar Batterham) has youth on her side and is a far more flippant creature who has no worries of tomorrow or cares what others think, she is naive and reckless. Stella’s mother is an off-stage presence that is supportive of her son’s lifestyle giving practical advice, encouragement and living vicariously through Stella’s exploits. There is also the lover, Arthur, who is expected on this night to present Stella with a ring (wedding) to be worn with her new cerise pink ballgown. Arthur sends a note to say he will be late, which Stella sees as a dark omen and she sees their relationship as a tenuous and tortured thing.
So, yes, this is not a play to lighten your way, and in many ways, it plays to the tragic ending expected from a story about those who transgress society. But the truthful and powerful telling of Stella’s story is rewarding for an audience who are drawn in to sigh, breath and cry with our heroine. The sad and ignominious ending of Stella’s life for me is one that is thankfully in contrast to the fulfilled and rewarding lives that are lived by trans artists today. No longer does a Queer artist have to adopt a gender or personality to be accepted by society, their stories and journeys can now flow into the public consciousness, their humanity shared and appreciated.
Neil Barlett work reaches out across time and as he has said the presence of Stella haunted, possessed and urged him into writing this piece. Stella’s deft and adept manipulation of the Georgian society echoes the finding of ‘place’ for a new generation, as the plays timely examination of transgression echoes our era of trans people finding their political voice.
I invited two of VFD's favourite young Queer performers along to see their reactions to the play's theme, click here to watch Kevin Le Grand Bailor and Lewis G. Burton interview.
Stella runs until 18 June at Hoxton Hall.