“We need to be constantly reminded and remind others not to be complacent. We’re living in troubling times”
BY DANIELLE MUSTARDE. IMAGE BBC RADIO 4.
Looking for something lovely to fill your ears with this weekend? You’ve come to the right place. London-based playwright Shelley Silas has, with the help of a handful of similarly talented women, created a radio drama we think you might just enjoy, The Trial Of The Well Of Loneliness.
Now, don’t click away just because you’re not the biggest literature fan – this isn’t a dramatisation of Radclyffe Hall’s pioneering novel about women-loving-women, but rather, the events surrounding the 1928 obscenity trial that the The Well Of Loneliness – and Hall – became embroiled in, events which birthed the herstory-worthy: “Give us also the right to our existence.”
Starring Kate Fleetwood and Anastasia Hille as Radclyffe and her partner, Una, The Trial Of The Well Of Loneliness is a part of BBC Radio 4’s Riot Girls season, a “series of no-holds-barred dramas written by women, featuring extraordinary female characters and their lives.”
Ahead of the play airing on 25 January 2020, Shelley Silas lets us in on the story behind how The Trial Of The Well Of Loneliness came to be and why the story of Radclyffe Hall’s trial is still crucial listening today…
DIVA: Hello Shelley. Firstly, why The Well Of Loneliness?
SHELLEY SILAS: It was a book that myself and many others read. I read it when I was a teenager and I actually have no idea how I even found out about it because things weren’t talked about back then. I remember watching a documentary about [lesbian club] Gateways at a friend’s house [and just] watching these women dance together and thinking, “Oh, that looks interesting.” No one ever talked about it or mentioned it. Somehow, The Well Of Loneliness found me.
How did you get from reading the book as a teenager, to having written a play on this significant chapter of the author’s life?
I hadn’t read [The Well Of Loneliness] again until I talked to the director for BBC Radio 4 drama, who I’d wanted to work with. An adaptation [of the book] had already been done, and I didn’t really want to adapt it because I didn’t think it would be anything new to a 2020 audience. But I thought, “The trial hasn’t been done,” and it was just so outrageous that a book would get banned based on its content being obscene. So, that’s where we started. We pitched it to Radio 4 and they were really interested in the trial.
What shape has the play taken?
We’ve got a bit of the book coming through it. We’ve got [main character] Stephen Gordon’s voice as well as a few others that come in like “ghost characters” and talk to us so we know what’s going on, and then it’s all about the trial.
How did you research the trial?
I found the entire court case documents at the National Archive. There are over 500 jpegs, numbered so I had no idea of the information each file contained. I had to sit down over three days and open every single document. I went a bit mad but I had to get to the actual final judgement. I found this at the end of my search. It was 16 pages long. It’s just extraordinary what things went on at the time. All these elderly white men who already knew what they were going to do, it’s shocking really. I found it all very moving and, of course, I read the book again and came to it with fresh eyes and fresh information. Some people say it’s not a great book, not well written and a bit tedious. On a second read I found it extremely sad and heartbreaking. It’s not great literature (in my opinion), but it is a vital book and the fact that it is still in print says a lot.
What in particular did you find heartbreaking this time around?
I’m sure I’ll be given a hard time for saying it, but I’m going to say it. I read it and, because there’s so much now about the trans community, I actually read it as a book about a trans man – that’s my own, 2020 interpretation of it. There’s a lot in it about, being like a boy, a man, there are references to this the whole way through. That was my feeling and, of course, [at the time] they didn’t have those words or know what ‘trans’ was. That’s why I found it heartbreaking. I was thinking about the trans community now and what they’re going through. It felt like a different read to me, and I’m sure there are people who completely disagree. There’s a lot in there to unpick with new eyes.
Definitely. It gives the novel, potentially, a whole new role to play.
I think so. Also, we’re coming to it watching Gentleman Jack which has been fantastically successful. Let’s not forget these series are all historical. Gay women are being viewed in an historical context. While gay women are not invisible in the media we have a long way to go to catch up with our gay male characters.
Besides new interpretations, is there anything else you hope audiences might take away from the play?
Being gay is still illegal in so many countries, with the death penalty if you are caught. A lot of books are still banned. The thing is, though we’re “okay” here, despite there being [a significant] rise in LGBTQI hate crimes in the UK. [This] is a reminder that, actually, we’re not as okay as we think we are and in a lot of counties it’s really not okay to be gay. We need to be constantly reminded and remind others not to be complacent. We’re living in troubling times. I wish we could sit back and go, “Ah, it’s all fixed” – but it isn’t. The other thing is, I think it’s fantastic that [the BBC have created] this series, but I would really love us to be part of the regular schedule and not be put in a ghetto. You know, this month we’ve got plays about the Black community, next month the Jewish community, the month after, gender identity. It should all be one in my opinion, but I think we’re a long way from that. We really need to work towards it just being “everyday” really.
And, having Gentleman Jack is one thing, but…
Yes, I mean, the BBC and broadcasters will sometimes have programmes on in time for an anniversary, but I think that’s completely different. Radio particularly wants to invite a younger audience that generally don’t listen to radio. And I think, if they want to attract a younger audience, we need to be looking at other things – and gender is one. All the young people in our lives talk about things that weren’t even in our vocabulary when we were kids. It’s enlightening, they’re inspiring.
Absolutely. So much has changed in the last 10, 15 years…
Definitely. Language has changed, identity has changed. I think we must embrace it and go with it. There needs to be a lot more across the board and not just compartmentalising plays that are “other”. We’re part of the same community, as everybody else is. Personally, I don’t want to be seen as other – I want to be seen as human. And actually, I think most people are open to listening.
I think you’re right. Before we wrap up, what else can you tell us about The Trial Of The Well Of Loneliness?
I have to say, the actors that we had were brilliant. Anastasia Hille as you know, and Kate Fleetwood, as well as Laura Christy who is the voice of Stephen Gordon, and our director Emma Harding. One more thing I want to say is that, there are two pieces at the end of the play and they’re spoken by Una and then Radclyffe and they are real pieces. That’s their words, it’s not made up. I don’t want people to think I’ve made that up – that’s the real Radclyffe, the real Una.
The Trial Of The Well Of Loneliness is a radio drama by Shelley Silas, starring Kate Fleetwood and Anastasia Hille and is part of the Riot Girls season of dramas on BBC Radio 4. The episode will air on Saturday 25 January at 3pm and will be on BBC Sounds shortly after broadcast.
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