A Haunted Experience fits into an abandoned police station turned multi-purpose arts centre (The Island). I freely enter an installation which presents research into local and national narratives of queer history. It is curated by performance artist Tom Marshman, with the help of freelance historian Jeanie Sinclair. I think of the importance of process in the making of socially engaged work.
The first cell is littered with post-war newspaper clippings; they natter blindly to one another, trying to determine “Why girls become lesbians”, as if they are a glitch in the system. I snigger at the absurdity of the phrasing, but probably shouldn’t. I think about how a post-conflict landscape can both liberate marginalised groups through mass reorganisation, but also limit social multiplicity due to a mainstream desire to revert back to “stable” values. It’s the combination of these things that really stings, like caging a bird in flight. I think of love, medicine and reluctantly, aversion therapy.
Opposite, there is a cluster of postcards; we are invited to send messages to those still incarcerated for homosexuality. I sense the prison bars against which they lean and feel guilty for my freedom within them. The second cell is a timeline of the post-war past. Blue is for political events, green is for cultural events and pink is for LGBTQ+ events. I want to smear the colours together.
Oftentimes, the epicentre of historical attention, political change and social progress are restricted to urban centres, meaning that rural dynamics are subsequently overlooked. Yet this also means that rural politics can be placed in opposition to “progressive values,” making the South West important but under-researched when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights in the UK.
The pages of Marshman’s history book are made from crackling vinyl and flickering gauze. He bends and pulls apart the linear confines of history and illuminates the queer archives of the South West through fragmentation and non-linearity. Together, we step into a conversation away from the stringent heteronormative ideals of post-war Britain. A 17-year-old 50s boy called Geoffrey Patrick Williamson is arrested on a train from Taunton for his suspected homosexuality, and threatened into denouncing those with which he has had sexual relations. We are here to find out what happened to them.
These personal histories are inscribed onto Marshman’s body. Soaking in sepia, he plays in the past with a turn-of-the-century Bowie-esque stature, then iridescent in a beery glow, rescues the dregs of forgotten stories. He has the names of the prosecuted men written on his wrist and he tells us their unjust fates. He embodies systematic homophobia, taking on the voices of court judges and politicians. His eyes glint with a warmth which draws me back when my attention drifts.
Marshman brings the kaleidoscopic séance of these men into a rich proximity, but I feel a need for this theatre-maker to reach out with a historian’s hand and guide me through the material with more certainty, a more precise pacing and a finer line of argument. I become lost somewhere between the core stories and the outer, abstracted layers. This means that I never feel entirely immersed, and nothing seems to stick. I crave the knots between the personal and the political, the links between the local and the national. I want Marshman to speak to me, rather than beyond me.
Though A Haunted Experience needs some time to settle into itself, it is an admirable endeavour to use theatre as a collaborative and educational tool for historical access, and a necessary effort to unearth and exhume stories that are still excluded from our straight-laced textbooks.
A Haunted Existence is playing The Island until 23/09/2018. For more information and tickets, see here.