Gwen Lally, English pageant master, male impersonator, queer director (1882-1963), could, in her own words, “claim the distinction of being the only actress who has never worn skirts on the stage”. You can find a profile of her on the English Heritage website.
This short film, available on a Pay What You Can basis, looks at her life and times through the words of her partner, critics, and contemporaries. Lally was a trailblazer, and was eventually rewarded with 1954 for her work in the field of pageants, but did anyone really know her?
In Plain Sight is written by Sam Chittenden, directed by Katie Turner-Halliday and featuring Lucy Ellinson as Gwen, with Sharon Drain, Rosin Monaghan (as Mabel Gibson, Lally’s personal and artistic partner) and Aurea Williamson.
It was presented as part of International Women’s Day and supported by Bradford Council. Co-produced by Different Theatre (who brought us last year’s Sary) and Heifer Productions, this film is largely in black and white but feels very much of the ‘here and now’.
In the spirit of Lally preferring to appear in private as well as public life in male attire, the all-female cast play both male and female roles, and the piece is presented in something of a documentary form, intercut with footage of Ellinson as Gwen.
It often uses overlapping words within scenes – to give the illusion of a perfectionist or busy mind – which contrast with Lally’s musings within natural or hidden habitats. The sound switches from one ear to another (so I would recommend using headphones to capture all of Chittenden’s words).
One moment we are listening to the wardrobe woman chatting about Lally’s creativity when developing her pageants, then to Gibson giving a glimpse into the private Gwen, then Woolf on the plight of women in the arts, and Gwen herself feeling irritation with her audience.
Each detailed snippet builds to give some insight into this complex character, but although we come away liking her and respecting her, we never really feel we get close to her. Lally’s pageants were ones of broad vision and a spirit of winning, and In Plain Sight very much presents her in the same way.
Her ‘legacy’ was important to her, but was Woolf right to note she left her words “in the mouths of amateurs”, or AA Milne to mention the general wish of the public to keep writers in their place?
Male impersonation has been an art for many years: “Burlington Bertie”, Vesta Tilley, “Gentleman Jack”, Hetty King, and, in Harlem, Gladys Bentley. Now, in the 21st century, drag kings are an accepted part of queer performance.
In Plain Sight is a surreal piece which toys with the expectations of both a digital ‘theatre’ piece and the historical characters it depicts. Set aside half an hour and give this the attention it deserves.
You can purchase tickets to the on-demand version of In Plain Sight at https://live.themill.tv/selectTickets.php?id=GWENLALLY.
Header image: Mabel Gibson and Gwen Lally in Henry V, from the Banbury Guardian.
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