‘Really, I think most people have no idea...’


Neil Bartlett

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Sitting alone in a silent room, a man looks back on a life spent searching for the courage to truly be himself. Stella is inspired by the scandalous life and lonely death of Ernest Boulton, a music-hall artist who lived and worked as a woman in Victorian London and was punished for his success with arrest and disgrace. Neil Bartlett is an acclaimed British theatre director whose work includes both controversial performance pieces and work for the National Theatre. Stella is a theatrical look back at a life lived in times very different from our own; a passionate message sent  from the past to the present.


Background information

British director, writer and performer Neil Bartlett will be making his Holland Festival debut with Stella, the story of a life outside of the social mores, a life which could only be a true and full life on the stage. The piece is inspired by one of the strangest scandals of Victorian London. 

Ernest Boulton (1848-1904) was a minor music-hall artist who lived and worked as a woman, captivating audiences in and around London with his charm, his beauty  and his sensational frocks. Boulton was completely honest about his sexuality and openly lived with his lover Lord Arthur Clinton, a prominent politician.

In 1869 he was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit sodomy – in other words, for daring to appear in public as a homosexual. After a sensational trial – and the tragic death by suicide of his lover – he was acquitted.

Boulton left England and reinvented himself as a cross-dressed burlesque performer in musical theatre, appearing on Broadway. When that career stalled, he returned to the UK and made a third attempt at re-invention by touring as part of a second-rate vaudeville act on the British variety circuit, sometimes credited as a man, sometimes as a woman. Ernest Boulton, aka Lady Arthur Clinton, Mrs W. Graham and Stella, Star of the Strand, died in obscurity and relative poverty in 1904.

With minimal means Bartlett stages a triple tragedy. First, the tragedy of the sudden, unimaginable shock, when Boulton fell overnight from social success and security to arrest and disgrace. Then, the gradual loss of his remarkable good looks and the resulting erosion of his employability. And finally, underneath everything that happened to him,  a more profound disaster; the tragedy of being born in the wrong body. Stella offers an intense, theatrical meditation on age, youth and what it really means to be yourself.

Bartlett first came to prominence in London in the 1980's with a series of controversial solo performances. As well as being a performance artist and an activist within the gay community, he also created controversial work for the National Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Company and Simon McBurney's theatre group Complicite (who features at this year's Holland Festival with The Encounter). In 1988, he set up the collective company Gloria, together with producer Simon Mellor, composer Nicolas Bloomfield and choreographer Leah Hausman. As well as a performer and stage director, Bartlett is also an acclaimed author.

The writing of Stella was informed by a year of research with cross-dressers and transsexuals living in London, and by Bartlett's private conversations with Ogawa Mitsuharu, better known under his stage name Nakamura Tokizo V, one of Japan's greatest onnagata – the male performers in the kabuki theatre who perform female roles. The piece will also draw on documentary sources –  court records, theatre scripts and personal letters – which will be spiked and intercut with other, more contemporary stories, such as popular “coming out” confessions posted on YouTube and trashy confessional biographies like those of Jayne County and April Ashley.

Like most of Bartlett's work, Stella is about the essence of theatre. Using the simplest of means  –  two actors, two chairs, a handful of costumes and a dense, highly personal text  – he creates a deeply moving story about a man trying to find the courage to be himself. The result is an intense encounter between the audience and Stella, who they meet at two crucial and very different moments in her/his life. Far from being a history lesson, the piece uses Stella's words and body to ask some very personal questions about fear, courage and how to keep your nerve when life turns dangerous.



Throughout his work, director, writer and performer Neil Bartlett (1958) has deliberately challenged the accepted divisions of genre between high and low art, mixing radical-activist elements with more traditional theatre practice. Bartlett made his name in the 1980's in London with a series of controversial site-specific solo performance pieces – most notably A Vision of Love Revealed In Sleep (1987), a response to the AIDS crisis which Bartlett notoriously performed naked. 

With his kindred spirit Simon McBurney he performed as part of the clown act The Beech Buoys. They appeared together at the first London International Festival of Theatre in 1981, and also (memorably) as support act to the Goth band Bauhaus at the Hammersmith Palais. In 1985 he worked as a director for Simon McBurney's theatre company Complicite, helping to create More Bigger Snacks Now, the show that won the company the Perrier Award and first brought them to national attention. In 1982, Bartlett formed The 1982 Theatre Company. A year later, working as an administrator for gay community theatre company Consenting Adults in Public, he helped to stage and tour Louise Parker Kelley’s Anti Body, the first play produced in Britain to address the AIDS crisis. That same year, he also created his first original theatre project, Dressing Up, a triptych depicting three centuries of London’s gay subculture. In 1988, he set up the collective company Gloria, together with long term colleagues producer Simon Mellor, composer Nicolas Bloomfield and choreographer Leah Hausman. The company created and toured fourteen projects over ten years, ranging in scale from the first intimate version of Night after Night (1993), a solo show staged upstairs at the Royal Court to an audience of fifty a night, to their final show Seven Sacraments (1998) at Southwark Cathedral, a performance-oratorio featuring  a choir, a children’s chorus, a company of dancers and a full orchestra alongside Bartlett himself. 

As a director, Bartlett staged new productions at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Court and the National Theatre. In 1994 he was appointed Artistic Director of the Lyric Hammersmith. Over a ten year period, he managed to transform the previously run-down venue into one of the most adventurous, respected theatres in London. After leaving the Lyric in 2005, he staged theatre and opera performances at the Manchester International Festival, the Brighton Festival, the Edinburgh International Festival, The Abbey in Dublin and with the Handspring Theatre Company. As well as a theatre director, Bartlett is also an acclaimed author. He debuted as a writer in 1988 with Who was that Man?, a personal re-appraisal of his long-time hero Oscar Wilde. He made a name for himself as a novelist with Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall (1991) and Mr Clive and Mr. Page (1996), followed by his third novel Skin Lane in 2007. His fourth and most recent novel, The Disappearance Boy, earned him a nomination as Stonewall Author of the Year in 2014. Stella marks Neil Bartlett's debut at the Holland Festival.



tekst, direction
Neil Bartlett
Richard Cant
Oscar Batterham
David Carr
Rae Smith
Rick Fisher
Chris Shutt
Johanna Coe
Nicolas Bloomfield
co-commissioned by
Holland Festival, Brighton Festival, LIFT Festival

This performance was made possible with support by