This year there will be not one, but two new drama commissions for the theatre strand of the festivals: ‘Devils in Human Shape’ and ‘Mister Stokes: The Man-Woman of Manchester’. ‘Devils in Human Shape’ is devised and performed by Tom Marshman. ‘Mister Stokes: The Man-Woman of Manchester’ is a new drama written by Abi Hynes. Both projects have been made possible by funding from the Arts Council of England, by some generous donations from private patrons and by much on the ground work from volunteers in each host city.
Ric Brady and Stephen M Hornby, LGBT HM’s National Theatre Coordinators, have brought together the histories, creative teams and academics to make these two projects. Last year, they were appointed as LGBT HM National Writers in Residence and staged the festival’s first commissioned drama. ‘A Very Victorian Scandal’ was set in 1880 and told the story of the largest ever police raid on an LGBT venue in UK history, which has been dubbed ‘The Victorian Stonewall’. Ric and Stephen will be introducing each performance at this year’s festival with some film of ‘A Very Victorian Scandal’ and a brief talk setting out the vision for festival theatre in the future.
‘Mister Stokes: The Man-Woman of Manchester’ tells the story of Harry Stokes who was found drowned in the River Irwell in 1859. When his body was examined, he was found to be biologically female, though he had lived as a man and married twice. Based on the few records that exist, ‘Mister Stokes: The Man-Woman of Manchester’ is an insightful, colourful and moving piece. In a time when words did not exist to describe him, Harry managed to live a successful life for many years. But, like many trans pioneers, he has been mostly forgotten, until now. The play is written by Abi Hynes, who has previously dramatized the life of Vesta Tilley, and will be performed in Manchester.
‘The Devils in Human Shape’ is an immersive performance that brings to life eighteenth-century documents detailing sodomy cases in Bristol. Through playful and sinister modes of speech, three gossipers speak of the sins committed by the ‘devils in human shape’. This experimental encounter is a brilliantly inventive new way of bringing history to life. The piece is devised and performed by Tom Marshman, Danny Prosser and Rachael Clerk. Tom Marshman has been making performance work inspired by LGBTQ history for over 10 years and will be performing ‘The Devils in Human Shape’ in London, Bristol and Shrewsbury.
Stephen and Ric said:
“We’re delighted to bring work of such quality to the festivals. It was important to start broadening out the geographical and demographical scope of the festival theatre and to start welcoming in other creative and academic talents. We think people are about to experience history in a whole new way.”
After the success of last year’s A Very Victorian Scandal, Pagelight Productions brought festival theatre back to Manchester’s LGBT History Festival. This year, the remarkable true tale of Harry Stokes is brought to life after remaining hidden amongst the press archives of Manchester Central Library for more than a century.
Harry Stokes was a Victorian brickie and later Special Constable who married twice. When his drowned body washed up in the River Irwell in 1859, he was discovered to be biological female. It is a truly fascinating story of a trans pioneer which quite rightly is finally being told.
Written by Abi Hynes, this two-hander performance transported us into the world of Victorian Manchester. The seemingly lifeless body of drowned Harry lies upon an examination table. Fully clothed in his Victorian attire, a nervous Ada prepares to complete the task thrust upon her of determining Harry’s biological gender. But the disturbed spirit of Harry jolts to life and we join Ada in a journey to discover the human behind the salacious headlines of the man dubbed ‘The Man-Woman of Manchester’.
There was so much depth and thought provoking stuff in this performance, despite a short running time. The strength of writing managed the difficult feat of synchronising historical truth with a poignant and human story but with a delicate sprinkle of occasional lightness. Joey Hateley’s performance as Harry Stokes in particular, captured the inner turmoil of a man who was defied by his biology in a time when the term transgender did not exist.
Props to both performers as Hateley was joined by Jo Dakin who smoothly transformed back and forth from Ada to Harry’s two wives through a series of flashbacks to key moments from Harry’s two marriages. The first of which began to crumble on it’s wedding night as he is forced to explain that he’s man but that his ‘bits’ just don’t match. Not only is he rejected by his wife but we discover she went on to ignite the rumours and tittle-tattle that would blight Harry’s life. It would be easy to wonder how Harry thought he would navigate a marriage without his biological gender coming to light. However, it’s a testament to the writing and the performances that we understood Harry’s misguided motives; he was a man and Harry’s struggle was palpable.
There was something bittersweet about Harry’s second marriage. It was successful and long-lasting to a woman who it seems was one of the only people who accepted Harry for who he was. We were rooting for Harry to have found some sort of happiness in this acceptance and yet his turmoil prevailed. It was sad to watch Harry wrestle with himself and his body during a time in history where there seemed to be no explanation. It might be rooted in the past, yet it’s easy to see how this would resonate with a modern audience. It certainly left me wondering how Harry Stokes, as an unwitting pioneer of his time, would fare in a more progressed society.
The thought of the struggles faced by our LGBT ancestors is affecting stuff. But instead of throwing shade at history for it’s ignorance of gender identity, this performance dealt with the past with a sense of understanding. The character of Ada humanised the lack of awareness at the time; Ada represented a time when many people simply couldn’t comprehend the complexities of gender and sexuality. As Ada and Harry’s journey evolves Ada becomes sympathetic to Harry’s plight to die as a man. As a result, she’s left in turmoil as Harry pleads with her not to reveal the truth to those outside. But ultimately, Ada murmurs that going against the grain isn’t easy. A quiet line which says so much.
Engaging and informative, Harry Stokes: The Man-Woman of Manchester, was rightfully thought provoking stuff. The work of the LGBT History Festival is such an important part of our community and I hope this play continues it’s life beyond the festival. I’m already looking forward to see what hidden tales from the past are brought to life for LGBT History Month next year.
4 stars. Reviewed by Hayley-Jane Sims for Canal St Online, Friday 26th February. Rating: 4.5