Are you ready to meet Anne Lister’s contemporaries on the stage?
BY CAIT FINDLAY, IMAGE BY THEATR CLWYD
“It’s a reimagining, not a reenactment, and we are very much telling this from a 2022 lens,” says Katie Elin-Salt, writer of a play about the Ladies of Llangollen called Celebrated Virgins.
Katie’s co-creator, Eleri B Jones, who also directs the play, agrees: “There have been times in the process where we felt really wedded to the facts and then we’ve kind of been like, ‘No, it’s not a documentary. We can kind of go off and take our own thing from it’.”
The facts of the play are based on the lives of Ladies of Llangollen: Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. They were two Irish women who met in 1768, making them contemporaries of our best-known 18th century lesbian, Anne Lister AKA Gentleman Jack. The Ladies absconded from their lives in Ireland in 1778, along with their maid, Mary Carryl. They landed in Plas Newydd, Llangollen, and lived there together for 50 years.
As ever, historians have argued about the nature of their relationship, but for Katie and Eleri, it’s pretty cut and dried. “Their dog was called Sappho,” says Eleri. “So that tells you all you really need to know.”
The Ladies became somewhat of a landmark in their own right, entertaining famous visitors like William Wordsworth and the Duke of Wellington. Throughout the years, awareness of them in broader culture has dwindled, but the people of Llangollen have been telling their story for generations.
“It’s a huge part of the pride of the area – with a double meaning of pride,” says Eleri, who grew up in Llangollen. “They are so proud that they were the place that accepted these women and let them live there in peace and solitude.”
Eleri and Katie have integrated that community pride into the show, with members of the local community playing parts of the visitors and staff in the Ladies’ orbit. “They are absolutely amazing and joyous and we’re very lucky,” says Katie. “We feel incredibly privileged to have them.”
Those members of the local community will be rubbing shoulders with Victoria John and Heather Agyepong, playing Lady Eleanor and Sarah respectively, who have a long list of theatre and television credits between them. As a Black woman, Eleri says that Agyepong’s work and lived experiences have contributed to the play’s possibilities around “reimagining historical perspectives for different underrepresented communities.”
Part of that reimagining includes the staging of the play itself. The Ladies’ image was informed by their top hats and riding habits, outfits which marked them out as different at the time. Faithfulness to costume will be complemented by contemporary design elements by designer Holly Pigott, music by Lynwen Haf Roberts, and sound design by Matthew Williams.
Part of that contemporary feel is the play existing at all. I ask the pair about the growing popularity of queer theatre – including shows like Ladyfriends, telling the story of Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney. Katie says: “I think it’s only very recently that people have shown that people who are not queer or lesbians have shown an interest.”
Katie’s own interest was piqued by Eleri over a table at Wetherspoons – she couldn’t believe she had never heard the story of the Ladies before then, and was thrilled to get writing. It’s been over two years in the making, but finally Eleri and Katie hope that their show will be able to celebrate the Ladies in the manner they deserve.
Celebrated Virgins will be performed at Theatr Clwyd from 20 May until – 4 June, in Theatr Mix.
Booking available at www.theatrclwyd.com.
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