The National Theatre's Olivier stage is the kind of enormous space that is simply prefect for staging epics, for example like last year's superb 'War Horse' (due for another run from September). But if you're going to stage an epic you can't just rely on the size of the stage alone. It needs imaginative direction, inventive staging and a plot that has a large story to tell, or a big idea to get across.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz's new play 'Her Naked Skin' has the qualities of an epic, even if it doesn't exactly have a cast of thousands. It's an epic in the sense that it does indeed have a large and hugely important story to tell, but it's also a more intimate piece at the same time because it focuses on a love story between two women that evolves from the larger one about the Suffragette Movement.
Looking back, it's hard to imagine that it took years of protests and terrorist-like activities on the part of committed women, for them to be given what is now regarded as a basic human right: the vote. The Suffragettes were a highly organised and determined group of women whose sense of injustice drove them on to commit acts of vandalism, arson and bombing attacks in order to gain publicity for their cause. They also used acid to write slogans on golf courses: "No vote, no golf". They obviously had a sense of humour too.
'Her Naked Skin' shows us women organising and taking part in protests and acts of violence, followed by their subsequent spells in prison. There's a huge rotating prison block which is the central feature of Rob Howell's inspired design. Raised up on a truck that almost covers the whole width of the Olivier stage, a series of cells accommodates the Suffragette inmates. Behind the prison block, film and photographic images are projected onto huge screens. Most notable is a film clip of the 1913 Epsom Derby when Emily Wilding Davison met her death when she threw herself under the King's horse in protest. It's a highly moving and poignant sequence, as indeed are many other aspects of this riveting drama.
It's also hard to imagine that a liberal Government, headed by Herbert Asquith, could allow women prisoners to be dangerously force fed by having tubes inserted through their nostrils and into their stomachs. Protests from doctors of the time were ignored by the Government, and we're not spared this barbaric act during the course of the play.
Lesley Manville leads an exceptionally fine cast as Lady Celia Cain who's frequently incarcerated in prison as a result of her Suffragette activities, and begins to have problems with her lawyer husband who is being 'got at' by his associates and members of his club. To compound her problems, Lady Celia falls in love with one of her fellow Suffragettes, and though the initial flush of romance is a distraction from her marital problems, the intrusion of society forces her to reconsider the relationship.
Howard Davies's direction is sensibly subtle and astute, but encompasses a large enough vision to produce a classic, compelling drama. It makes no attempts to glorify the activities of the Suffragettes and there is no hint of sentimentality - though it equally doesn't fail to show the courage, bravery and determination of those involved in the movement. In a sense, the directorial strategy is part documentary, part soap opera, the action alternating between scenes in prison and the more intimate scenes in Lady Celia's home, or with her Suffragette lover, Eve Douglas (excellently played by Jemima Rooper).
'Her Naked Skin' is more than a mere documentary of the early part of the 20th century. Rebecca Lenkiewicz rightly chose to include in her commendable script a sub-plot highlighting other social restrictions which women had to face at the time. The overall result is a highly emotional and moving play, which will I hope, in time, take its place in the front rank of historical drama. It's a very fine work, brilliantly realised.
Full enfranchisement of women didn't take place until the late 1920s, after a long and extremely hard-fought campaign by women, a mere 80 or so years ago. Not the kind of record that entitles UK politicians the automatic right to preach to other countries about their democratic institutions! Rather, it is a gaping scar on the British political landscape, and one we shouldn't be allowed to forget.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Intriguing, poignant play about the Edwardian suffragette movement." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "A deeply affecting and rousing drama." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Excitingly staged."
Production photo by Catherine Ashmore