Features Published 19 October 2015

Tipping the Velvet: An Exeunt Dialogue

Five writers talk ridiculous sex scenes, queer invisibility, and heartbreak in response to the Lyric Hammersmith's musical adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel.
Exeunt Staff
TIPPING THE VELVET by Waters, , Writer - Sarah Waters adapted by Laura Wade, Director - Lyndsey Turner, Design - Lizzie Clachan, Lighting - Jon Clark, The Lyric Theatre, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

Sally Messham and Laura Rogers in ‘Tipping the Velvet’ at Lyric Hammersmith. Credit: Johan Persson

Devoted readers have a sense of ownership over any novel that’s adapted for stage, or film: just look at the enthusiastic frame-by-frame scrutiny of Potter fans, or the fury with which Janeites greeted the so-called “pig version” of Pride & Prejudice (2005). Tipping the Velvet was groundbreaking for bringing explicit depictions of lesbian love and sex to the bestseller tables of Waterstones and to family living rooms everywhere, thanks to a particularly saucy BBC adaptation. Here, five Exeunt writers with fond memories of Sarah Waters’ 1998 novel react to the Lyric Hammersmith’s stage adaptation with a mix of bafflement, sympathy and hardened resignation.

Catherine Love: Adaptation is always an act of transformation, or perhaps translation: taking something from the language of one medium and rendering it in another. The vocabulary of theatre is necessarily different to the language of a novel. And so it makes sense, in theory, to seize on the music hall element of Tipping the Velvet. It’s about much more besides, but the intoxication of the stage is central to Sarah Waters’ novel – at least for the first half. Moving it to the theatre, why wouldn’t you emphasise that?

But in Laura Wade and Lyndsey Turner’s adaptation, the music hall theme has been underlined at the expense of everything else. I can see why, as an idea, framing the narrative as a series of music hall acts could seem like an ingenious way of staging a novel of such epic scope. The trouble is, though, that the broad comedy of the music hall turns out to be incompatible with Waters’ complex and nuanced depiction of queer women in the late nineteenth century. All this form knows how to do is make us laugh. And when what we’re all being encouraged to laugh at is the idea of two women falling in love (or having sex in some weird metaphorical circus act), there’s a pretty massive problem here. That’s without even mentioning the mansplaining narrator …


Sally Messham and Laura Rogers in ‘Tipping the Velvet’ at Lyric Hammersmith. Credit: Johan Persson

Caitlin Benedict: Oh, that narrator. If only Nancy had broken the fourth wall to tell him to shut up before the final scene… Adapting a novel so intensely loved for its female protagonist and her active narratorial voice, handing that position to an invented male character seemingly inserted to obliterate any sense of pacing is just such a baffling choice.

Really, the whole thing was a ream of baffling choices. Credit must be given to Sally Messham and Laura Rogers whose considered and charismatic performances as Nancy and Kitty delayed my realisation that something was badly off for much of the first act. For a moment, the scene in which Nancy starts sex work in Soho Square to the soundtrack of (was it the 1812 Overture or Rule, Brittania! ?? Or Pomp & Circumstance? My brain has started to post-traumatically block the show from my memory) whilst confetti cannons so wittily represent male ejaculate, I thought the grotesque celebration of sexual subjugation would land hard, akin to the goose-stepping kick-line in Cabaret or the minstrel routine in The Scottsboro Boys, but it was unquestionably played for laughs, which instantly evaporated the last traces of my generosity towards the production.

Much like the whole music hall conceit that – as you said Catherine – is utterly incompatible with the emotional content of the story, the bizarre coyness of the “sex scenes” only serve to ridicule the experience of queer women and remove the opportunity for the (admirable) principal cast to give warm, truthful portrayals of iconic characters for the queer community.

And on that iconic-ness: “of course the play is going to be different from the book” is an oft-repeated argument when it comes to adapting beloved bits of literature, but when it comes to these characters and this book, the idea that the play gets to sit beside the book is so frustrating because (as I think is the case for most of us) this book is so personal to me, and it’s one of very few published novels that speaks articulately, erotically, heartbreakingly about the experience of being a queer woman. And I cannot hang from a silk to save my fucking life.

Sally Messham and cast in 'Tipping the Velvet'. Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Sally Messham and cast in ‘Tipping the Velvet’ at Lyric Hammersmith. Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Mary Halton: My copy of Tipping the Velvet is on someone else’s bookshelf, which is why I cannot leaf through it now for reference. It has never lived on mine; as soon as I’d read it, I was eagerly shoving it into the hands of anyone who would receive it. It speaks the truth of the glory and ridiculousness and pain of your first love, and that to me is universal.

Invisibility is distressingly ingrained in the lived cultural experience of being a queer woman. You never come out just once – you are coming out all of the time. And as soon as you have, you need to contend with people shoving you right back in again, unless you happen to inhabit the Venn diagram overlap of ‘looks queer’ and ‘is queer’. Very few pop culture narratives are yours, and those that are are often appropriated for the enjoyment of a straight audience, or miss either wilfully or in ignorance what it is to be queer and single, to be bisexual, pansexual, how that intersects with being trans, genderqueer… the list goes on.

So when I first read Sarah Waters, it was to heartbreak and revelation. The first woman I loved wanted to hide me from her family. She lied and obfuscated and pretended that it would be fine, because we were in on it together. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in love, and I don’t know if you’ve ever been anyone’s secret, but the two are incompatible. It turns anything good into shame, into ashes in your mouth. I wept for Nan so many times when I read Tipping the Velvet, because while it can be a universal love story, it is also an incredibly specific one.

It may be fair to say, therefore, that I had heaped a mound of expectations on the Lyric’s production so high that it’s incredible I could see over it to watch the performance. But when you set out to stage a novel that is so steadfastly emblematic of the culture and experiences of a particular group of people, I do feel that carries a weight of responsibility. I can’t rain hellfire down on an adaptation because it doesn’t live up to my own memory of reading the novel – a book is a living thing, and different to every person who reads it, in any particular stage of their life.

But the inescapable fact for me is that the Lyric’s Tipping the Velvet made me sad. Crushingly, achingly sad.

“Women are good at translation”, Jane Griffiths recently wrote, “We are culturally programmed for it. We learn early on to translate the world we inhabit: to adapt the stories that permeate our culture to have meaning for us…” Watching Tipping the Velvet, I found myself translating again. This narrative was unfamiliar and I couldn’t find in it a love story, or a glimpse of the characters that had so broken my heart on first reading. I couldn’t wade through the bawdy comedy, where loving another woman was perpetually narrated as just faintly ridiculous, where sex was something that couldn’t really be staged and had therefore to be alluded to.

I’ve been going to the theatre for a while. I’ve seen women slapped, punched, shot, beaten, raped, drugged, strangled, kidnapped, restrained, threatened and spat on. I’ve seen straight love scenes and I’ve seen love scenes between two men. Tipping the Velvet is only the second time I’ve seen queer female sexuality depicted on stage (the first was Fierce;  a glorious and unashamed one woman show at Camden People’s Theatre), and Nan and Florrie’s quick fumble was about as close as it came to non-acrobatic reality. Yet it still hung, as all scenes in this piece do, on a knife edge between feeling and comedy; the audience poised and waiting for this to be revealed as humour and not sincerity.

How a story that is so powerfully about the strength of desire and the eroticism of sex between women has become a music hall pastiche is not just lost on me, but somewhat devastating. Baffling aerial allegory aside (so very much aside), every time Nan and Diana come near each other, with agency and aggression and want, the curtain swoops closed lest we see too much.

Why? Are women shameful? Or confusing? This wouldn’t appear to be the intention of any of those involved in the production, so for an art form that is overwhelmingly about the body, and for a theatre that has shown itself willing to stage the brave and the challenging… what happened? And why did I feel so invisible when I left?

Sally Messham and Adele Leonce in 'Tipping the Velvet' Credit: Johan Persson

Sally Messham and Adele Leonce in ‘Tipping the Velvet’ at Lyric Hammersmith. Credit: Johan Persson

Natasha Tripney: You know I didn’t have a huge problem with the silks. I thought, at least in part, it might be a knowing nod to Kneehigh’s Nights of the Circus, also performed at the Lyric, which contained a similar scene of aerial eroticism, albeit one full of yearning and eloquence (and, you know, actual eroticism); a reference in keeping with the Three Kingdoms joke at the very beginning. It’s when they repeated the device with the whole 50 Shades chandelier palaver that I started to get a bit tetchy. I understand that sometimes a production wants to find a visual language for depicting sex on stage – Amber Massie Blomfeld has written about this in more depth and with more insight in The Independent – which isn’t all about lips and skin and sweat, but it does need to be in some way seductive, to convey something of the connection between the characters, and this did neither. It was the constant dropping of that curtain that really began to get to me and the way it sucked the heat out of all of Nan’s relationships, but particularly that first, vital one with Kitty; it began to feel so oddly coy and timid, their love reduced to a series of skits, their love reduced: full stop.

I interviewed Laura Wade beforehand and she talked about the book with respect and affection, she described it as a trailblazer and acknowledged the strength of feeling so many people have for it. But its journey to the stage has taken almost four years and I do wonder if it’s like one of those times when you’re attempting to sketch something and don’t quite know when to put down your pencil, when you end up over-working and over-shading things until all subtlety of tone is lost.

tipping the velvet 2

Sally Messham in ‘Tipping the Velvet’ at Lyric Hammersmith. Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Alice Saville: I got the same sense of respect and affection interviewing the designer Lizzie Clachan in the run-up to the production: she mentioned that when she and Laura Wade had consulted Sarah Waters about the script, she’d distanced herself, slightly, from the glitzy, sexy camp of her first novel. Her subsequent books since have been grimier, and moodier. It’s almost as though Laura Wade took Waters’ own slight embarrassment about the incredible emotional intensity of the book, and magnified it through her own discomfort into an adaptation that’s all about ironising, distancing, male-narrator ribaldry.

It’s particularly unfortunate because straight plays about lesbians are so rare that they’re almost an oxymoron. Like Mary Halton, I’ve seen a bare handful in four years of more-than-weekly theatregoing. The Color Purple at the Menier was easily the best: a revival of a Broadway hit that managed the impossible feat of weaving sexual abuse and institutional racism into the trajectory of a show that landed somewhere joyous and real. Clean Break furnished a couple more examples – harrowing stories built on the experiences of female prisoners. Breeders, at St James Theatre, was a yuppie baby-making comedy written by a straight man on the basis of meeting a lesbian couple at a dinner party. Beyond a couple of unmentionably terrible/tasteless Fringe shows (both involving predatory lesbian rapists) that’s it.

Those last three shows made me wonder why I loved theatre full stop, when the feeling clearly wasn’t mutual. No wonder that it sometimes feels like there’s an ingrained culture of scepticism from queer women towards mainstream “lesbian” cultural products: we’re made cynical by experiences of offensiveness or highly sexualised exploitation (as pretty photoshoots filled film mags, Blue is the Warmest Colour’s original author Julie Maroh complained of the film’s “brutal and surgical” sex scenes). Gender bias in both theatre and film means that directors tend to be male, and that often comes with a tight focus on sex or baby-making at the expense of emotions.

There’s also a less-definable lack of recognition of queerness as a social identity that’s about so much more than what you do in bed. If you don’t have queer women involved in the production process, you miss all the little in-jokes and cultural nudges that gay male directors load their films or plays with. It’s hugely significant that this play’s pop cultural source matter is all taken from the straight world, the few entries that wink at a lesbian audience (Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn) are muted in favour of songs that are saturated with the male gaze and speak with a male voice. It’s hard to be sure – but would a lesbian director have gone for female-penned queer anthems like Do it Like A Dude, Standing In The Way of Control, or Poker Face, or *whisper it* Tegan and Sara?

I went with a queer friend who knew the story through the (kind of brilliant) BBC adaptation. We probably permanently raised our eyebrows several centimetres through our constant incredulous exchanged glances at each fresh insanity. We loved the seaside silliness of Nancy’s time as a rent boy, blowing whistles mounted on end-of-the-pier painted picture boards. We cringed at her excruciating sex scene with Florence, interrupted by the “ghost” of Kitty bursting out of cupboards or from under beds. It was fun.

And I’m not sure I expected it to be much more than that. I’ve learnt not to expect theatre to speak to my life (performance and live art and novels and comics, yes). Jane Griffiths’s essay made me realise that as a theatregoer I’ve become a doubly expert transposer: of male stories, of straight relationships. When even the National Theatre still isn’t really comfortable giving women writers big stages, it’s little wonder that queer women’s stories are left to performances like Fierce at Camden People’s Theatre – or turned into a silk-strewn panto for a pre-Christmas audience.

What we have is bold, bright and oddly beautiful. A love letter to the music hall that hasn’t addressed its florid endearments to a queer audience. A chaotic mish-mash of styles and silliness. And until Fun Home gets a London run, we’ll have to make it sing to us.

Tipping the Velvet is on at the Lyric Hammersmith until the 24th October: you can book tickets here


Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine


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