“You were not beaten by a woman, but by greater intelligence. Intelligence is no respecter of gender…”
Anne Lister was a paradox. Well-known within Yorkshire in the 19th century, her achievements were eclipsed by rumours of her sexuality. And while she was forthright about certain things, Lister valued her privacy when it came to matters of the heart. Written and directed by Ross McGregor, Gentleman Jack looks at the truth behind a woman who was a pioneer in entrepreneurship, mountaineering and in some ways ‘a modern lesbian’.
Taking place throughout the 19th century, we not only meet Lister in her younger and later years (played by Lucy Ioannou and Cornelia Baumann respectively), we also hear about her through a relative – John Lister (Alex Stevens). Inheriting her diaries, John’s roped in his friend Arthur Burrell (Tom Hartill) to help decode her guarded thoughts. Ironically, the secrets Lister keeps (through her use of Greek, zodiac and mathematical symbols) are a little too close to his own situation…
One of the things that’s most striking throughout Lister’s life is the ease with which she accepts her sexuality, without apology. Rather than viewing her ‘tastes’ as an affliction, she deeply feels that everything about her is natural and how she is meant to be. Men, meanwhile, take a dim view of her penchant for dark, ‘masculine’ clothes and ‘roving eye’ – earning her the moniker ‘Gentleman Jack’.
Over the course of the play, we see that two important relationships in Lister’s life. Initially, her intimate and constant companion is Isabella ‘Tibs’ Norcliffe (Laurel Marks) with whom she shares a love of Shakespeare. But while Tibs is completely enamoured by Lister, genuine feelings aren’t reciprocated, with Lister only finding Tibs’ recitals of the Bard amusing. This becomes evident with the arrival of Lister’s ‘great love’ Mariana Belcombe (Beatrice Vincent), who encapsulates everything she is looking for.
Life, however, gives Lister a taste of her own medicine, with Mariana very much ‘holding the cards’ and leaving Lister to accommodate her arrangements. In this particular section of the play, the actors are to be commended for their sensitivity to the material, as the tension they generate surrounding the Tibs-Lister-Mariana dynamic is palpable, leading to the naked truth…
If Lister as a younger woman is more ‘complex’ and less charitable in matters of the heart, her later self is more singular in who she loves – someone she stays with for the rest of her life. As a young woman who has inherited the sole responsibility of her family’s estate, Anne Walker (Hannah Victory) is in a similar position to Lister, but without the same confidence and acumen. Entering the male-dominated business of coal mining, their early efforts are met with derision – exacerbated by the likes of neighbour Christopher Rawson (Toby Wynn-Davies) who has several coal pits of his own. Every bit a representative of the patriarchy, Rawson would like nothing more than to see Lister fail, but with Walker and Lister working together, they make several in-roads into the male-dominated preserve of commerce…
As a play, Gentleman Jack has much to say about sexual politics and what women ‘allow’ themselves to do versus what society expects. The fact the events in this play are all true, but largely unknown by the world is all the more remarkable. The play doesn’t pretend that Lister is never beyond reproach or her relationships are never messy. Instead, it shows how her tenacious nature and appetite for life in the long run keeps her in good stead for the future.
© Michael Davis 2019
Gentleman Jack runs in repertory with Arrows & Traps’ Taro at Brockley Jack Studio
Theatre until 16th February.