It is easy to forget what women went through to achieve the vote. From the moment Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play opens with footage of Emily Wilding Davison throwing herself under the hooves of the King’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby, through scenes of hunger-striking Suffragettes being brutally force fed in Holloway prison, and the unrelenting work of members of the Women’s Social Political Union, we are reminded, writes Caroline Bishop.
But Lenkiewicz’s ambitious play is not just a portrait of the Suffragette movement at the height of its militancy in 1913; intertwined around it is the personal story of two women who join the movement and fall in love – the upper class Lady Celia Cain and the younger, working class seamstress Eve Douglas. Both imprisoned for their part in carrying out the movement’s motto ‘deeds not words’ the pair bond over a bucket of potatoes in the prison’s workhouse and begin a sexual relationship that is to make them more at odds with polite Edwardian society than their militant Suffragette activities already do.
Lenkiewicz gives us a clear picture of that Edwardian society and its attitudes to the Suffragettes, from the mocking members of Herbert Asquith’s parliament, who consider Suffragettes to be merely “lonely, frigid women who crave attention”, to Celia’s husband William, one of many men whose initial support for the movement dwindles as it becomes more militant. The life of the women in jail is also vividly depicted in Rob Howell’s vast, intricate set of interlocking grills: the appalling method of force feeding Eve is hugely uncomfortable viewing.
The relationship between Eve and Celia is less clear cut. At first Lesley Manville’s Celia comes across as a confident, wilful, composed woman with an innate sense of fun; someone who is not going to be broken by a spell in prison and whose upper class background makes her a force to be reckoned with. But as time goes on, the selfishness and weaknesses within this troubled character surface. Her eventual treatment of Jemima Rooper’s Eve, who falls passionately in love with her, is cruel, and her dedication to both Eve and the Suffrage movement can be questioned when she gives both up after her husband, with whom she has shared a long and unfulfilling marriage, threatens to cut her off. Lenkiewicz illustrates the difficulties of these women’s position – but also makes less of a feminist statement – by giving us a character whose desire for enfranchisement is curbed by her unwillingness, as an unemployed upper class wife, to attempt to live without her husband’s money – even if, too late, she does summon that strength.
The equally troubled Eve finds herself in no better a situation. Though both are a part of a movement that is eventually to lead to a hugely positive step forward in women’s liberation, Lenkiewicz makes it clear that these characters are still, sadly, trapped in an era that will never recognise their sexual freedom, even if political freedom is round the corner.
Among this huge cast in Howard Davies’s production is Susan Engel as stalwart, robust Suffragette Florence Boorman, Stephanie Jacob as Briggs, the burly female prison guard whose opinion on both women’s Suffrage and sexuality is never, unfortunately, heard, and Adrian Rawlins as William Cain, the husband who tries, but is unable to understand the complexities of his wife Celia.
Her Naked Skin is part of the Travelex £10 season.