Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

From Actor to Dramatist

Celebrated Virgins

Katie Elin-Salt writes "Celebrated Virgins" , Theatr Clwyd & Chapter , June 23, 2022
Celebrated Virgins by Katie Elin-Salt writes London's theatre presented this sping an acclaimed revival of the most accomplished actor-playwright of Wales. Emlyn Williams' "The Corn is Green" was both a critical and box-office success.

There is a history of actors becoming dramatists that is not the case with poets. Their material of language may be in common but the sensibilities are different. There are exceptions- Lorca, Lawrence- but in most cases the poet's relationship with words varies. Poets mine the world for metaphors and musicality. The purpose of words for performance are patterns and appositions over space and time.

The passage for Katie Elin-Salt from drama student to a praised production has taken a dozen years.

In 2010 the RWCMD mounted in a modern American musical: "I liked the Judy Holloway-ish echoes in Katie Elin-Salt’s voice and the light whoops at the end of her singing lines" read the review here.

The professional years have been busy, from supporting role to lead. She was in the most-seen theatre of Wales of the decade, Terry Hands magisterial "Under Milk Wood" for the Dylan Thomas centenary year. "Katie Elin-Salt gives us a flawless interpretation of the role, her clear, very moving singing voice, telling us of her great love, Little Willy Wee who is dead, dead, dead."

The writer was to be seen in a Chippy Lane ensemble night. Her "Splinter" was one of six short plays that made up "Who Runs the World" in March 2018. In 2020 she was one of six to receive a writers' residency on the Tyfu/ Grow Creative Development Programme at the Gladstone Library in partnership with Theatr Clwyd. Sh was shortlisted by the BBC Writers Room Wales Writer in Residence 2020.

"Celebrated Virgins" uniquely played in both Mold and Chapter. It is rare for a leading London critic, who are now few in number, to be in Mold. But Susannah Clapp was there:

"...In 1778, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, teacher and pupil, ran away from their grand families and Irish society to make a home together in Llangollen. They sought isolation to pursue their passion for each other and create an ideal existence. They read avidly, gardened abundantly, and cultivated particular enthusiasms: for aeolian harps (otherworldly notes trickle through the evening), snake charmers and underground passages. Their “Fairy Palace of the Vale” rapidly became less than secluded, visited by the Duke of Wellington, Wordsworth and Josiah Wedgwood; they were both courted and sneered at, and remained together till death.

"In her marvellous 1971 book The Ladies of Llangollen, Elizabeth Mavor explored these lives as a “romantic friendship”. Elin-Salt’s play is more palpitating, more narrowly insistent on sexual yearning and the importance of acknowledging exchanges which were once forbidden. Vibrantly directed by Eleri B Jones, with Victoria John a touching Eleanor (eyeglass, waistcoat, inhibited) and Heather Agyepong an ardent Sarah, the play excavates yet another concealed history: that of the women’s maid. Emma Pallant superbly delivers a marvellous speech in which a fond eyebrow is raised at the couple’s sensitivities: “Who carried their bags?”

"Holly Pigott’s design captures the expansion of the ladies’ lives as they make their own world. A dark, constrained, unyielding place turns into an Eden, brightly spilling over with flowers and greenery. All this in a temporary space, domed like a tent, as the main Clwyd building is being redeveloped. The ladies’ cottage is about 20 miles away from Mold: their story feels local. As so often, the more local and specific, the more general the resonance."

The review can be read at:


Gareth Llŷr Evans was there for the Guardian:

"...Katie Elin-Salt and Eleri B Jones’s Celebrated Virgins...charts Butler and Ponsonby’s relationship from the first tentative pangs of unarticulated love to the serenity of their eventual “silent, pensive days” spent among the roses. Although based on real events, it is noted as a reimagining of the ladies’ narrative and aims to reclaim their story on their own terms. And while the drama, like its title, is quite chaste, it is persuasively and often tenderly affecting.

"Written by Elin-Salt and directed by Jones, Celebrated Virgins is performed by a cast of four with the assistance of a community ensemble. As Sarah, Heather Agyepong possesses a commanding and playful charm, and from the outset this is clearly very much her story. Her free-spiritedness is in stark contrast to Victoria John’s Eleanor, more cautious and concerned about how the world might impinge on their unconventional idyll.

"Condensing the story of two extraordinary lives over the course of 50 years perhaps inevitably makes the telling a little potted. The first act feels like a succession of events, interspersed with musical longueurs that inhibit the pacing. But gears shift in the second act, partly due to the presence of the ladies’ maid, Mary Carryl – played by Emma Pallant – and the action feels far more immediate, its dramatic tensions more pressing.

"The presence of the community cast is a lovely touch, a constant reminder that even these staged historical figures were also real people, determined to exist simply with dignity and grace. And at its most tender, Celebrated Virgins is a warm affirmation of lives lived authentically, and of gardens tended into bloom."

Extracts from the full review which can be read at:

From Arts Scene in Wales:

"...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...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 full review at:

The Tyfu/ Grow Creative Development Programme features in the "At Theatr Clwyd" sequence 11th February 2020.

Some of the theatre work features on:

"Hello Again" is reviewed in the sequence "At RWCMD" 10th February 2010.

"Crouch Touch Pause Engage" at "At National Theatre Wales" 24th Feb 2015.

For Theatr Clwyd below:

"As You Like It" 15th February 2012

"Educating Rita" 28th April 2013

"Under Milk Wood" 13th March 2014, 14th March 2014, 11th April 2014

"Out of Love" 28th July 2017

"Black Mountain" 20th February 2018

Katie Elin-Salt is interviewed by Gareth Williams for Get the Chance at:

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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