From Lady to Gentleman - That's Shalott

In The Gentleman of Shalott a beloved poem is given a dramatic incarnation by writer/performer Gareth Watkins. Here, in conversation with our Editor-in-Chief, he tells of an extraordinary event that became a major stimulus for his play and gives a fascinating insight into the creative process and development of the script.

Your new play, The Gentleman of Shalott, is inspired by Tennyson’s poem. How did you first encounter the Lady of Shalott, and what were your feelings towards it?

I first read The Lady of Shalott when I was studying Romantic poetry at university in 1991. I was interested in the Victorian obsession with medieval Britain - pre-industrial, idealised and mythologised.

I was also intrigued by the central character who lives in a tower with a curse upon her. She can only see what’s going on outside by looking in a mirror and she has to sit there all day and all night weaving a tapestry that depicts the world outside: a world she can observe, but not partake of. Then one day, she sees Sir Lancelot, falls in love and decides to leave the tower.

I always wondered how long she’d been there, who’d put the curse on her, and what she had done (if anything) to deserve such a punishment? Maybe it isn’t even a punishment - but a perverse version of a secure life.

What is Tennyson trying to tell us? Is it a poem about servitude, about sexuality, or about destiny and agency? And is it really possible to fall so deeply in love with someone so quickly that you would risk your life?

At what point did you think it could be adapted as a play and have a gay man in the title role.

A strange sequence of events led me towards this particular adaptation. It’s a strange story, but one that might help to contextualise my starting point.

One November night in 2015, I was alone learning a script for a BBC drama. When I needed a break, I went onto a well-known hook-up app to see if there was anyone around for a chat.

I started talking to this man who seemed quite charming, but refused to show me any photos. There are various reasons why people do this, of course - they might be married, they might think they’re ugly, they might be famous or they might not be out. I wasn’t sure whether to trust him so I politely ended the conversation and went back to my work.

An hour later, I noticed he had left some more messages for me, suggesting that I should go and meet him at his office. He said he was working very late into the night. He wanted me to go there and take all my clothes off, flex my muscles and then get dressed and go home. I said it was a lovely idea but again, I politely declined.

Then he offered me £1000, which changed my thinking somewhat!

I said, "Let me get this right: you want me to come to your office, take all my clothes off, flex my muscles and then get dressed again. And you are going to stay sitting behind your desk and not come anywhere near me and then you will give me £1000 in an envelope?’

"Yes, that’s right," he said.

Now, I’d never done anything like this before but I couldn’t think of a good reason not to do it. There was no risk (I’m 6ft 3” and I can handle myself) and no capital outlay (apart from the bus fare) and at an hourly rate, £1000 is pretty good by anyone’s standards.

So I agreed. He gave me the address. It was a small hospital up in the woods on the hillside. I assumed he was a senior consultant doing some late-night paperwork.

When I arrived, it was dark and very foggy (I think it might even have been Guy Fawkes night because you could smell sulphur in the air), and the place looked deserted. He told me to walk straight past reception and turn left down a long corridor.

I asked him to come and meet me, but he told me to relax and just follow his instructions.

There were speakers along the corridor playing some tinny Europop and a broken exit sign was flickering on and off. It could easily have been the set of a David Lynch film. I was quite nervous and I could feel my heart beating in my chest, but I thought of the money and kept going.

The corridor was so long you couldn’t see the end of it. But he told me to keep walking past Departments A and B and C etc and carry on down towards the middle of the alphabet. When I got to F, two nurses came towards me and I panicked. I hid in a doorway and waited for them to go past. I kept very still, not even daring to breathe. There was a rhythmic mechanical noise inches away from my hiding place, and then it dawned on me that I was on a ward full of people on ventilators.

I remember thinking, "I shouldn’t really be here". In fact, I wasn’t at all sure about the protocol for wandering around a hospital in the middle of the night, but because I was the guest of a senior consultant and I had the online conversation to prove it, I thought it must be okay.

When the coast was clear, I continued along the corridor, again, following the instructions of the consultant, and again, pleading with him to come and meet me. Instead, I was told to go up the stairwell to the second floor and along another corridor. But once I reached the top, I had to hide again – this time behind some laundry baskets to avoid being seen by some nurses with lanyards and clipboards.

Eventually, I told him that this was getting silly and he would have to come and meet me, otherwise I would go home. He told me to calm down and then started to suggest some changes to our little arrangement. He requested some adaptations that are too salacious to include in this account, but needless to say were over and above our agreed ‘contract’. I refused to accommodate these ‘extras’ and told him he’d better bloody well come and meet me and he had better bloody well stick to our original agreement and make sure he had £1000 handy in cash. Then suddenly, he blocked me! And the entire conversation simply vanished into the digital ether!

I was now completely alone, and deep inside a labyrinthine hospital in the woods at 1:30am, with no permission, and no evidence to back up my version of events. Blind panic took over. Could I remember the way out? Would I be able to get out without being seen? Could I be arrested for trespassing? I started breathing deeply to try and moderate my anxiety and began retracing my steps in order to get out. I made it back down to the long corridor, had to hide once more in the ventilation ward (silently apologising to all the patients for my intrusion) but then made it out through reception without being challenged, and was eventually back on the bus in a state of shock.

Only then did it dawn on me that I had been deceived. Who was the man? Perhaps he wasn’t a senior consultant at all? Maybe just a patient who was bored and lying awake at night, creating some mischief to pass the time. I questioned my own wisdom, and the ease with which I had been duped. But I also couldn’t help admiring the gall of this stranger, who, in using the internet as cover, pretended to be someone else, and under the guise of a fairly thin backstory, was able to manipulate a rather naive and unsuspecting person on the outside, totally controlling my behaviour. It was genius.

The next day, I began to write an account of what had happened to try and understand it, and it seemed more interesting to write it from his perspective: someone alone in the middle of the night, in some kind of control tower, perhaps someone kept against their will, pulling manipulative levers to direct the behaviour of people on the outside.

And as I thought about this lonely, cloistered figure, The Lady of Shalott naturally crept back into my mind, and I started to consider the parallels.

That has to be the most extraordinary stimulus for a script and a great story in its own right. How did the writing process progress from there?

I went back to the poem and started to think about some of the characters outside the tower, for example, the reaper, the page and the shepherd. I thought, if the Lady of Shalott could communicate with any of these characters using the Internet, there would be nothing to stop her from assuming a different persona with each one of them - and thereby controlling them in different ways.

Instead of seeing the world through a mirror, she might even use an iPad. She still has to weave what she sees outside, but now this becomes part of a strange monitoring and recording process - a bit like security guards watching CCTV. And like the stranger in the hospital, I decided to make the protagonist a gay man, and explore these events through a ‘neuroqueer’ lens. I’ve called him Martuni.

That’s a remarkable transformation of the original context and reinvention of the storyline. From there, what themes did you extract from that nineteenth-century poem to make it meaningful for today?

Like the original poem, The Gentleman of Shalott explores questions of anxiety and isolation. The main difference is technological rather than emotional. How does technology both connect and isolate us? How do we use technology to project different impressions of ourselves and manipulate people?

There are also broader implications for Martuni's behaviours. He may well be suffering from agoraphobia and social anxiety rather than a medieval ‘curse’. And through his interactions with others, we become increasingly aware that the world outside is suffering from economic collapse, mass migration and civil unrest – all caused by environmental disintegration and political war-mongering. Martuni uses the isolation of his island tower to maintain a self-protective ignorance of this upheaval. And this becomes a metaphor for our blissful denial of the climate crisis and the world’s inequalities: the lengths to which we will go and the costs we will incur to avoid ‘current affairs’ in order to maintain an easy life. And like the Victorians before us, do we long for a bucolic, preindustrial lifestyle that would enable us to escape the traps we have created for ourselves?

There are some themes I’ve extrapolated, which are entirely contemporary and of which the Lady of Shalott would have had no experience, such as our use of social media. In our isolation, we use social media to project idealised versions of ourselves, and this discounts our own real worth as individuals.

I often get approached on Instagram to become an ‘influencer’ (usually for fitness products). The egomaniac in me likes the idea, but I also wonder whether it’s a wise move in terms of my mental health and quality of life. Instagram influencers have very managed public personae, and it takes a lot of effort to maintain the illusion. My gym is full of people who run OnlyFans accounts from their bedrooms, and fitness instructors making exercise videos for the benefit of their YouTube followers. Some of them make a lot of money and enjoy it. But for many, it’s a stressful merry-go-round - worrying about their hair, the fake tan, the sleeve tattoos and how many followers they have - rushing from their calisthenics session in order to get to a teeth-whitening appointment on time.

And of course, I’m guilty of some of this behaviour myself, but it amuses me nevertheless and writing this play has given me time to reflect on the absurdity of contemporary life: the illusion that we are at the centre of the world, and everyone must therefore be interested in everything we do. Martuni is insecure and at the same time rather vainglorious and egotistical. His blank tapestry is a response to the meme that 'people these days seem to document so much, yet accomplish so little.'

In deconstructing Shalott and reinventing it, have you been influenced by any specific writers?

I easily absorb other people’s styles In terms of writing, for example, another play I’ve written called Boy for Life uses similar structures and devices used by Sarah Kane and Peter Gill. In The Gentleman of Shalott, I have leaned quite heavily into Samuel Beckett and Joe Orton. This is mainly because, for me, this kind of humour is most effective in focusing a lens on the absurdity of our existence.

The idea of ‘focusing a lens on the absurdity of our existence’ brings to mind the COVID period which interrupted Shalott’s progress, but I understand it also brought about the unexpected opportunity to make a film version of the script.

Yes. Back in the spring of 2020, I was preparing to start work with Punchdrunk Theatre Company on The Third Day, but the lockdown put a sudden end to that, and I began rehearsing my own script, The Gentleman of Shalott, at home with my friend Craig Byrne directing me on Zoom. We decided to make a film version of it so we could send it to theatre producers. Then, another friend, Kaspar Swankey, who’s a blacksmith in Berlin, offered us a filming location. It turned out to be his Soviet railway control tower.

Four of us went over there, including my husband Pete Gomes, who’s an artist/filmmaker. He brought his camera equipment along and became a co-director. Richard Clark, who runs Radiant Circus Cinema Events also joined us to co-produce.

On day one of filming in the tower, it became apparent that we were no longer filming a play but making a piece of cinema.

And that is a completely different ball game?

Absolutely. The differences between cinema and theatre might well be obvious to some people, but only at that point did I realise how much we would have to change. To begin with, cinema has much less dialogue and is a more visual medium. So every day before filming, Richard and I would be cutting huge chunks from the script for the day ahead. Also, Pete was eager to film some non-narrative footage of the location, so he’d have more scope for variation during the edit.

Cinema relies heavily on realism, and some of the more metaphorical or poetic passages suddenly seemed to be rather indulgent. They too, had to be cut. In the theatre, audiences usually watch the same space for the duration of the piece, and it’s possible to adapt this space to some extent, but it’s essentially the same location. In the cinema, you don’t need to imagine locations, you just find them and get permission to film there. Because the protagonist is stuck in a tower, our story relentlessly happens in the same place, and this becomes very difficult to watch through the lens of the camera. As a result, when we got back to London, Pete took great pains to create some additional visual material, including some overlaid dream sequences, in order to offer more variety.

We are very pleased with the film considering the size of the budget and the team. It’s finished now, and it will be premiered sometime in 2024.

Since then you’ve made further changes. What form does the story now take?

When the theatres reopened, I realised that this was an opportunity to explore the script in a different context. The theatre audience expects different things, and can easily handle a more metaphorical and poetic experience. But there were some edits we made in the screenplay that I have decided to keep because they work better - more expedient perhaps. We are also hoping to incorporate some of the soundtrack that Craig composed for the film. It’s beautiful - a piece of art in itself.

The film, then, has become a major influence on the play, but you also completed the MA in the Theatre Lab at RADA a few years ago. What impact has that had on how you see the play being staged?

Before doing my master's degree, I tended to work on other people’s projects that were offered to me through my agent. Some of these jobs were excellent, and I’m really proud of the work I have done over the years, but there’s something deeply satisfying about producing and performing your own writing. It feels like you are being fully challenged as an artist.

Before I went to RADA, I would never have considered myself to be an artist - I was just an actor waiting to be told what to do. I learnt a lot of things during my time on the MA, but overall, it changed me as a practitioner and gave me the confidence to take the means of production into my own hands.

The work at RADA was all about collaboration. I realised the value of non-hierarchical creative processes in which we draw on the skills of everyone in the team. It’s a deeply satisfying way of working. It’s about good communication and the ability to offer and accept ideas and then synthesise them.

What do you want audiences to take away from having seen the play.

This will be quite variable, depending on the disposition of each audience member. Some people will respond to the exploration of neuro-diversity and the absurdity of contemporary queer life. Other people might look at the bigger picture concerning the environmental and political collapse that’s going on outside and our own engagement with it. I also expect many people will be familiar with the original poem and will be interested (perhaps outraged!) to see what we have done with it.

It’s a peculiar play, to be honest, and I hope it will resonate with people as if they have just woken up from a strange dream. On a more fundamental level, I really hope they enjoy it and that it makes them laugh.

Related Listings

The Gentleman of Shalott

The Gentleman of Shalott

In his isolated tower, with the river running by, Martuni, on his dating app is besieged by suitors trying to lure him into the outside world. 

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