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Neil Bartlett's Stella: so perfect it's a bit irritating #HF16

The smallest details speak for themselves. For the second time during this edition of the Holland Festival, the legendary BBC series This Life comes along. Richard Cant, who plays a flawless lead role in Neil Bartlett's play Stella, was previously seen in This Life, the series that set the standard for the modern docusoap in 1996. So now live, up close, in De Brakke Grond's Red Hall, the man who also played a solid role in Midsomer Murders.

So what Cant can do is British acting. British acting is acting with an eye for the smallest details, and acting with a love of language, giving every syllable its own treatment, making every silence sound like a monument to tension or resignation. We can't act like that here in the Netherlands, but not so much because we don't can (after all, everything can be learned) but mostly because we all don't want. Dutch actors and spectators are used to a different kind of transparency. We actually always want to see the person behind the character; we often think just acting is crazy enough.

Whether that's a pity, I'll leave for now.

The play Stella is precisely about the relationship between the actor and his character. Cant portrays in Stella the elderly actor and variety star Ernest Boulton, who in the latter half of the 19e century experienced highs and lows with his life in women's clothes. In England, which has had experience of the challenging ambivalence of the man in women's clothes since Shakespeare's days, Boulton was a star as long as he was not openly gay. From the moment he could no longer hide that, his career went downhill. He dies anonymous and poverty-stricken in a provincial hospital, aged 56.

Writer and director Neil Bartlett puts the older, almost dead Boulton on stage together with his younger self, played by the angelic young actor Oscar Batterham. The text develops as a two-part duet, with the two men first alternately speaking from each other to the audience, or the conventional fourth wall, before confronting themselves in direct dialogue towards the end. All this is carefully watched by an 'attendant', a figure borrowed from Kabuki theatre who acts as a male dresser.


Bartlett focuses on the question of whether someone living as a character is a yourself has that coincides with that character, or vice versa. So that question goes beyond the banal statement Whether the historical Ernest Boulton would have been better off if transgender in the present, where, if desired, a sex-change operation could have cured him/her of his/her split once and for all.

The Brit who has had a long career with more activist theatre projects wants to search for the essence of acting and identity. Something that indeed Shakespeare also plays with in his two sharpest comedies. In As You Like It and Epiphany, the author also plays with the fact that a young actor plays a woman who dresses up as a boy in 98% of the play. At a crucial moment in the play, Bartlett quotes verbatim from Twelfth Night: precisely the scene in which the two 'boy-actors' clash over who is most realistic in his portrayal of a young princess.

These are dramaturgical details that are likely to escape a Dutch viewer less versed in British traditions. What then remains is a performance so clean and perfectly executed, but also so neatly within the lines of BBC drama, that it becomes a little irritating. Not very seriously, as it is still fascinating to see such acting, but in 'hindsight' I did regain a greater appreciation for the sometimes overly transparent acting of many young Dutch theatre-makers, as seen at this festival at Wunderbaum. Surely that is closer than this live-performed 3D TV from British soil.

Good to know

Seen on 20 June at De Brakke Grond, Amsterdam. Stella can still be seen there: 21 June. Information.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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