Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet adapted for the theatre: Laura Wade puts lesbian sex on stage

The groundbreaking Victorian romance revolutionised gay literature when it was first published in 1998

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The Independent Culture

Laura Wade, Sarah Waters and I are sitting in a cafe talking about dildos. “Honestly they are so common these days they are practically a Mother’s Day gift,” says Waters. Wade and I are less convinced. “Yes, and of course they crop up all the time on the stage,” chips in Wade. “There was that recent production of Faust…”

The discussion of sex toys is not gratuitous. We are here because Wade, hot on the heels of the success of The Riot Club, the film about Oxbridge drinking clubs that she adapted from her Royal Court smash hit comedy Posh, has dramatised Waters’s bestselling lesbian romp Tipping the Velvet for London’s Lyric Hammersmith. And, as anyone who has read that novel or seen the BBC’s 2002 TV adaptation will know, the story of Nan King’s sapphic self-discovery within the netherworlds of Victorian London contains a lot of smouldering between-the-sheets action.

Tipping the Velvet, which imagines a Victorian lesbian history through the sexual adventures of the cross-dressing King, revolutionised gay literature when it was first published in 1998. No novel before or since has had the same crossover appeal as Waters’s lavishly detailed, erotically charged debut. Perhaps with an eye to its popularity, the idea of turning Tipping the Velvet into a stage show was that of Sean Holmes, artistic director of the Lyric, although the lovely Victorian auditorium must have also played a part: it’s a perfect match for the Canterbury Palace in which Whitstable oyster-girl Nan catches sight of her first love Kitty, a “masher” or male impersonator.

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Author Sarah Waters, right, with playwright Laura Wade, left

“A lot of the novel is very theatrical: it plays on the idea of dressing up, cross-dressing and self-invention and, of course, the first third takes place in traditional Victorian music halls,” agrees Wade. “So we wanted to harness that theatricality, and also use several techniques of the old music-hall acts – ventriloquism, comedy sketches, songs and so forth – to tell aspects of the story. We don’t really bother with the fourth wall, for example. We want to capture some of that Victorian engagement with the audience, although I suspect our audiences will be less rowdy.”

Wade and Waters are aware that, in putting Tipping the Velvet on stage, they are breaking new ground. Gay stories are comparatively common on stage: witness Kevin Elyot’s My Night With Reg, successfully revived last year at London’s Donmar Warehouse and in the West End, or Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, which recently embarked on a 20th-anniversary tour. By contrast, lesbian stories rarely get a look-in: I can’t remember ever seeing two women kiss on stage, although no doubt that has happened. US TV shows such as Orange is the New Black, Sense8 and Lena Dunham’s Girls have been much bolder – and more explicit – at dramatising lesbian sexuality. So why is theatre so far behind?

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Sarah Waters' (left) Tipping the Velvet, about an affair between two women in Victorian London, has been adapted by playwright Laura Wade (right) for the Lyric Hammersmith

“Part of the problem is that there has always been this male bias in the canon,” says Wade, whose plays include Breathing Corpses and a reworking of Alice in Wonderland. “Traditionally there are fewer plays written by women, although we’re doing our best to counteract that now. Yet it’s not just lesbian stories. Female sexuality in general has always been a minority issue. People haven’t felt the need to worry about it because it only reflects 50 per cent of the population.

“But to be honest, it’s also because sex is really difficult to deal with on stage,” she adds with a wry smile. “The theatre can’t get in close in the way that a novel or a film can do. Try and capture the tenderness or passion of those close-ups on stage and it’s just a couple of bodies. You can’t direct the gaze in the same way.”

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Sally Messham in Tipping the Velvet

Her solution, working with director Lyndsey Turner (currently in charge of the Cumberbatch Hamlet), with whom she regularly collaborates, has been to articulate the novel’s sexual frankness, but in an ostentatiously theatrical way. “There are three big sex scenes in the novel, one for each of Nan’s three main relationships, and with each we’ve tried to create something that presents how that encounter feels rather than what it actually looks like. So the first ecstatic, beautiful consummation with Kitty, when Nan discovers that she loves her and is loved back, has an aerial element to it and will hopefully be something very beautiful, tender and heartfelt. Whereas with Diana, the wealthy society lady who hires Nan as a cross dressing tart, the two of them are swinging from a chandelier and it will be much harder, more dangerous and explicit. Basically we are trying to find a way of absolutely embracing the sex without it being too titillating.”

When Waters wrote Tipping the Velvet 18 years ago, it was, she says, a very different world. “When I reread it recently I was shocked to discover how selfish I found Nancy,’ says the author, who has continued to map out a lesbian territory in fiction through highly successful novels such as Fingersmith and her recent, Baileys Prize-short-listed, novel The Paying Guests. “She utterly rejects her family. My editor said that perhaps Nancy ought to have some sort of reunion with them and I was adamant that she shouldn’t, because at the time I had very confidently immersed myself into the lesbian and gay community and it was a place where you made your own family. I was partly writing it for a lesbian community with lots of lesbian in-jokes.

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Author Sarah Waters, left, with playwright Laura Wade, right

“But we’re now at a point where lesbian sex and lesbian romance are available to all kinds of women, gay, straight and everything in between, partly because porn is more widely available but also because there has been a real loosening of those sexual categories... And, of course, there have been huge gains through the legalising of civil partnerships and gay marriage.”

She is always surprised that people focus on the sex in the book. “For me it was always a very romantic novel about love, although reading it now some of the writing feels very purple,” she says.

Wade agrees. “Yes, in a way we are actually quite used to seeing women-on-women sex – but it’s rare to follow an emotional story that sees two women really falling for each other.

“But, also, in many respects Tipping the Velvet was ahead of its time because it’s not classically a coming-out story. Nan’s sexuality is for her an entirely normal and joyous thing. And I think that feels very modern.”

‘Tipping the Velvet’, Lyric Hammersmith, London, 18 September to 24 October (www.lyric.co.uk)

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