Jul 29 2022
An Afternoon with Galatea

It's a delight and honour to introduce this blog post by Sara Pelham on our work. Emma Frankland, Andy Kesson and a group of performers and researchers are staging John Lyly's play Galatea in May 2023 in the UK (we aren't allowed to be more specific yet, but keep an eye out for our show!). Galatea is an extraordinarily important early modern English play that offers contemporary performers and audiences an unparalleled affirmative and intersectional demographic, exploring feminist, queer, transgender and migrant lives in a cast of characters that includes very few cisgender adult males, and it builds towards the celebration of a queer and trans marriage. Yet the play has almost no stage history since 1588, and is only starting to be better known amongst academics and students. Our production aims to centre intersectional identities of all kinds, and we are very grateful to the TIDE project for supporting our work.

Dr Andy Kesson


An Afternoon with Galatea:

In the stuffy, tiered lecture room 2 of the English Faculty building in Oxford, Emma Frankland, Andy Kesson and Subira Joy introduced us to their work on their upcoming production of John Lyly's early modern play and queer love story, Galatea.

Exploring an early modern playwright other than Shakespeare was an enlightening experience. Unlike Shakespeare, Lyly wasn’t dedicated two entire mandatory terms of study in Oxford’s English literature degree. As we spent the afternoon engaging with Galatea some beliefs of mine were confirmed: that the early modern period is not just Shakespeare, and that we should perhaps take him off his pedestal!

Binary gender roles and patriarchal customs are commonly found in Shakespeare’s works and wider canonical narratives; and even in instances where early modern social expectations are challenged and resisted (like the notable crossdressing in Twelfth Night and As You Like It), these seemingly transgressive plays still conclude with cis-het-normative rectifications.

As a story that reveals the euphoric effects of crossdressing, deposits Neptune of from his position of patriarchal control, and ends with the divine approval of a queer union, Lyly’s Galatea, however, is a work that is feminist, accepting of queer love, and promoting trans joy.

The play’s queerness extends beyond its surface-level subversion of normative sexuality, gender identity and gender roles, and plays out more implicitly in its fluid setting. Even at the most fundamental, pragmatic level, binaries and boundaries collapse when we find out that the play was staged for a woman (Elizabeth I) and performed on a stage owned by a woman (Blackfriars). Everything about this work breaks contemporaneous conventions and Lyly has Venus clearly affirm in response, “I like well, and allow it.”

Revived for the first time since it was last known to be performed 500 years ago, Emma Frankland’s Galatea takes Lyly’s queer legacy and uses it to open up silenced narratives and uplift marginalised voices. She allows for an open-ended exploration of identity by applying the lived identities and experiences of her actors to the performance. She invites them to share elements of themselves in the project, instead of reducing their roles to a single category as happens in much mainstream theatre.

The production has unfortunately been in working progress for the past six years due to a lack of funding. What this delayed production has allowed, however, is an extensive exploration and sensitive understanding such dense aspects of identity truly deserve. During the workshop, Emma Frankland talked of how such time really allowed for the “undoing of each other’s gender” and the grappling with the play’s “gender confusion”. Questions like, “Is Galatea trans masc?” or “Philida doesn’t like wearing the masc clothes and Galatea does, does this make Philida trans fem?” were raised along the way. Initially a result of invalidation, the prolonged time it has taken to shape the project has opened up a positive space to explore identity in all its complexities and free the performance from rigid social expectations. It shows how stories are ever-expanding and can be pushed to encompass marginalised-inclusive spaces that were previously never made, let alone thought, possible.

This expansiveness was really felt in the lecture room itself. When Emma, Andy and Subira first entered lecture room 2 room, it was clear that the space was not ideal. It immediately created a divide between us and them. Emma pointed out that the set up was somewhat “hierarchical”. But they encouraged us to creatively acclimatize to it and this made me come to a lovely realisation: that queer people, who’ve been handed a cis-het-normative world, will find ways to make this space our own and claim our place in it. We will constantly make use of what we’re given, and make it better.

What also notably helped understand the space and discover its malleability was Andy Kesson’s suggested improv status game. The space was not ideal, but, with some roaming around the room of our own and some awful attempts at acting, I found that the game, in the given space, began to make more sense as it allowed for questions of agency (with its relation to status) to be explored.

Even with this short activity alone, the familiarity of the English lecture room – where hours of labouring lectures on the greats and the classics had been delivered to me – was beginning to break down. Our creative adaptation to the space we were given helped destabilise our rigid cognitive ways so that new understandings about status could arise.

My understandings of the Early Modern period and Shakespeare in particular were challenged upon hearing Emma’s, Andy’s and Subira’s thoughts on Lyly. Unlike the archaic ways of the past, Lyly’s work is very much in line with openness and acceptance of identity in the present. The workshop demonstrated how Shakespeare doesn’t have a story for everyone, and this is a notion that, as Emma declared, is “important to break down.”. Shakespeare isn’t the ‘universal voice’ he is often made out to be.

Within these few hours of the afternoon, I really felt Oxford’s academic tradition re-forming into something new, I felt my interests in works beyond the classics and the greats being validated, and most invigorating of all, I felt my identity, as a queer person in the arts, being affirmed. Such an afternoon is a rare find, which goes to show that the university still has so much work to do to make sure that these spaces remain open, and these conversations continue.

Sara Pelham
English and French
Exeter College, Oxford

If this blog has made you want to know more about Galatea, make your way over to A Bit Lit for a conversation between Andy Kesson and Nadia Nadarajah on the play and the production.