It's a piece of theatre that excavates a forgotten piece of gay history, an incident in the early 1950s when a 17-year-old boy, Geoffrey Patrick Williamson, was arrested on a West Country train for propositioning another man who turned out to be a railway policeman.
“You may find these things morally wrong,” declared Williamson, “I do not.” Nonetheless he went on to name more than a dozen West Country men who he had been involved with, resulting in numerous prosecutions in the small town of Taunton. The judge came down hard on what he described as “a pestilence” in an era when homosexuality was still against the law.
What made Williamson name names? We never find out in a show that is shot through with 1950s music, employs lip synching and projection and is often partially performed behind a screen as if making the point that these are lives half seen, histories that remain closeted from view. But we can guess the fear involved at a time when the decriminalisation of homosexuality was still more than 15 years hence.
Photos by Matt Glover
A Haunted Existence begins with a lexicon, an alphabet of gay experience that takes us through aversion therapy, entrapment and gross indecency, and it returns to that lexicon folding in on itself as the story unfolds. I say story, but this reclamation of a lost past is more like a séance than any traditional narrative or recreation. Marshman’s research methods are unusual, to say the least, a summoning of spirits as he takes us back to the 1950s, the way gay men were both present and not present, always hidden from view. Always fearing they would be revealed.
That secretiveness is reflected in the show itself which can sometimes feel as if it is more interested in atmosphere than content, but which nonetheless captures the tragedy of living a ghost life, always relegated to the shadows. In the end, Marshman’s quest to find out what happened to Williamson and some of the accused comes not from the Ouija board but more prosaically via an email from an Australian bowls’ club.
Even so, what is written down does not tell the whole story. What we know and what we can never know remains tantalisingly out of sight. A Haunted Existence is constantly fraying around the edges, trying to put itself and these lost lives back together again. However much research you do, however painstaking, the real truth of individual lives often remains evasive. That is true for everyone, but for gay men before 1967—and sometimes since—it is even more the case. In A Haunted Existence lives swim in and out of focus. That is the point.
A Haunted Existence runs at Battersea Arts Centre from 7-9 Nov.