Stella: Gender and Identity in Victorian London

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Stella, an examination of issues regarding gender and identity; a love letter full of nostalgia to a distant past as well as an urgent plea to the present. It is a performance inspired by the true-life story of Ernest Boulton, a strong man who in his life, starting from his early teens, chose to live as a woman, creating a scandal out of mid-Victorian London society. Yet, this play does not only show the glory days and strength of Ernest; it also features the later life of the character and what he had to go through; his fears, insecurities and regrets. Both waiting for a knock, yet for different reasons…

Image: Christine Joan Muscat-Azzopardi

As we entered The Splendid, we were already immersed in the story with its antique architecture and the tunes of a vintage piano ricocheting from the stairs leading to the above floor. Dim lights further gave the spectators an immersive experience to the era. The set was rather beautifully laid especially young Stella’s side on the left with a vintage styled dresser lavishly covered in jewellery and a couple roses as well as cosmetics stored according to the era and a mirror frame. Ernest’s side, on the contrary was very bland in comparison. Only a platform and a chair with Earnest sitting in it with a glass of water and a small packed bag at the foot of the chair. This goes to show how bland Stella’s future came to be; “You think you can’t end.. But you do.” Yet, Stella always had this dream, the dream of freedom where she was naked and exposed and no one judged her. On the contrary, they admired her and wished that everyone else was naked as well, embracing their true self and undressing from all of society’s binds and chains. Who knows if this dream was still much alive in her before her untimely death.

Image: Christine Joan Muscat-Azzopardi

Within this play we felt there was an element of nostalgia to the glory days, the days where vanity took priority and beauty was the usual order of the day; another contrast that the wheel of fortune turned into humbleness and subtlety. This contrast was likened to an abortion, when Ernest mentions the abandonment of the clothes and other requiems of his previous lifestyle as Stella. The concept of vanity to humbleness what also palpable through the mentioning of mirrors. Mirrors served an insight to his life. When he was Stella, Ernest would constantly look at himself, especially when getting ready, even using two mirrors at a time. Yet, when Ernest grows old and is waiting for the knock, he shatters the last mirror in his house and is seen with a bloody bandage around his right hand (that btw looks very realistic!).

Image: Justin Mamo

Benjamin Milton and Alexander Gatesy Lewis starred as old Ernest and Ernest as Stella respectively. They were quite a show the two of them together, contrasting yet complementing one another especially during quick fire dialogues where Stella’s excitement and determination contrasted Ernest’s desperation and isolation; the excitement against the dread of life. One should also notice that there was precise synchronicity between the two despite the fact that they could not directly connect or make eye contact due to the nature of the play; they had to actively work hard and skill not to pick up on each other’s emotions. They also did a fantastic job at maintaining contact with the audience thus breaking the fourth wall and make the whole performance more intimate.

Image: Justin Mamo

This play was directed by Polly March and her assistant director, Liz Borg Cardona.The playwright of the play is Neil Bartlett, who admitted to rarely watching his own plays and that this was a delightful exception. We also had the chance to attend to a question-and-answer with the playwright, director, assistant director and actors which confirmed most of our assumptions about the play especially about perhaps the most important message regarding Stella’s dream of nakedness and freedom as well as the inspiration and the insertion of an event from his life as a transvestite when he was almost attacked for being dressed up in heels and a dress.

Image: Justin Mamo

All in all it was an amazing work of art, especially with the messages and themes it shed light on, truly revolutionary and it should be seen by more than just audiences who are within or approving of the LGBTIQ+ spectrum since the message was kind of lost within an audience that is already open minded and believe in trans rights. Still, this play gave a lot of valuable insight on what it was like to be trans or different and uniquely yourself in the mid-Victorian London. Well done to all those who made this performance possible!

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Stella: Gender and Identity in Victorian London

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