“You may find these things morally wrong. I do not.” That is the ringing clarion call extending from the Somerset town of Taunton in 1954 to the small auditorium of Battersea Arts Centre in 2019. Those moving words were spoken by 17-year-old Geoffrey Patrick Williamson during his interrogation by police after he mistakenly propositioned an undercover railway warden. As a result of that interrogation, Williamson was likely coerced into revealing the names of multiple men with whom he had been intimate.
A Haunted Existence is a multi-media exploration and tribute to those men, their stories and the larger climate of oppression that criminalised and condemned homosexual men in the 1950’s in the UK.
Like many other gay people, I feel a rippling dread looking back through the devastating annals of LGBT+ history. Today, as a worldwide community, we enjoy our few freedoms in the shadow of persecution, rejection, moral and religious indignation, and still, incomprehensibly, under pain of death. We exist in a spirit of ferocious bravery and pride yet our history reads more like a eulogy.
The show begins with Tom Marshman, shirtless and almost Christ-like, signalling each letter of the Semaphore alphabet as an overhead narration lists corresponding words. “C is for conversion therapy” etc. Immediately we are transported to a time of secrecy, suffering and shame; where something as natural as two men in love is described by a judge as ‘a pestilence’.
Under Marshman’s breath-taking guidance we are led through the true story of these young men as one flicks through an old photo album; brushing dust from the contents and telling stories along the way. Marshman moves with a fluid grace and delicacy, employing beat poetry, music, monologues and even addressing the audience directly about his investigation.
Though not a permanent fixture, our performance is also enhanced by the presence of a BSL interpreter. The words, visual effects and music are only heightened by the artful gestures and expressions of Nicki who herself seems to embody the sadness of the piece.
Marsh man plucks voices, faces and names from the past, inhabiting them as a ghost uses a conduit in order to bring them back to life. The use of record players is particularly effective. The crackling, warbling voices create a tone of wistfulness and evoke the era beautifully.
Particularly moving scenes include Marshman dancing with an invisible partner as a crooning love song plays and each man’s name, age, occupation, and prison sentence for gross indecency is announced. Another involves life-sized projections of him in different costumes recreating that condemned group of men. A whistle stop lesson of the covert gay language Polari is soon followed by frank descriptions of conversion therapy tactics. In this show, whimsy and jarring sadness appear in close succession.
Miraculously, wondrously, the play concludes on a hopeful note, with a happy ending. It is educational, emotional, infuriating and fascinating. I extend my deepest congratulations to Mr Marshman for his efforts to remember this regrettable chapter of British legislation and the skill with which he ushers us into his world. A Haunted Existence does not shine a light on this long forgotten story, but rather holds a candle of remembrance to it so that we might gather, mourn and celebrate in its glow.
A Haunted Existence played at the Battersea Arts Centre until 9 November. For more information, visit the Battersea Arts Centre website.