Celebrated Virgins is based on the true story of the Ladies of Llangollen retold for a modern world. In Ireland in the 18th century, Sarah Ponsonby is an orphan living with her guardians, Lady Betty and Sir William. Affectionate and caring though Betty is, Sir William is always a vaguely threatening presence, misogynistic in both his attitude towards his wife’s miscarriages and his inappropriate sexual attraction to Sarah.
Sarah is sent away to a school where she and her tutor Eleanor (who happens to be a Lady from one of Ireland’s most notable families) bond over a shared love of literature. They are particularly fond of the epistolary novel, reading aloud to each other from Richardson’s Clarissa and French examples of the genre, setting us up for a romance that blossoms via letter after rumours about their relationship abound and Sarah is sent home.
After talk of marriages neither want, they run away together. Unsuccessfully at first and then successfully, crossing the sea to North Wales and settling in Llangollen with their maid Mary Carryl.
Sean Carlsen and Emma Pallant
Victoria John and Heather Agyepong
There are some entertaining scenes at their home in Plas Newydd, especially a scene with a parade of visitors streaming through the house from all over the world. The visitors include poets such as Wordsworth and members of the aristocracy, all attracted by an article they have read and afterwards dissecting their impressions of the pair as though they were animals to be studied. They also serve to highlight the differences between the couple, with Eleanor more anti-social and cautious of being judged, and Sarah more outgoing and almost recklessly brave.
The set is necessarily compact, staged as it is in Theatr Clwyd’s smaller temporary space The Mix, but very well designed with carefully structured wooden pieces that transform easily into so many different backdrops. The community cast was cleverly utilised to simultaneously add to the drama and operate as stage hands, creating a seamless flow to the action.
The only thing I wasn’t keen on were the journey scenes where the characters walked different ways around the small set to convey their trip. It reminded me of Joseph and Mary’s journey around chapel or school hall to Bethlehem in a nativity. It would be interesting to see if the staging is exactly the same when the production moves to the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff.
The props are beautiful, particularly the planters used to create the Ladies of Llangollen’s highly prized garden. The costumes are also very well done and the music by Rock’n’Roll panto regular Lynwen Haf Roberts was very atmospheric.
The two lead actors, Heather Agyepong as Sarah and Victoria John as Eleanor, were excellent. Seán Carlsen was versatile and skilled, playing many different characters, and Emma Pallant in particular really shone as Lady Betty and Mary Carryl.
The last word of Celebrated Virgins is ‘now’, a word that resonates with emphasis throughout the script. Now the ladies themselves are telling their own story, in a ‘now’ where their love is nothing strange or unusual or wrong to any right-thinking person, whereas in their own time they had to practise caution a lot of the time. This is echoed in the modern costumes worn by Sarah when addressing the audience at the beginning and worn by both when they speak to us at the end. There is a sense that they have reclaimed their own story.
Writer Katie Elin-Salt and director Eleri B Jones are to be congratulated on this new play that tells a love story that gives overdue representation to a large section of society, and tells it well.
Celebrated Virgins is at Theatr Clwyd until 4 June. It will then tour to Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff 9-11 June.