Her Naked Skin is a new play by Rebecca Lenkiewicz at the Olivier Theatre, about suffragettes in 1913; I was in London this week, and went to the play’s first preview on Thursday evening.
At the start, the audience is confronted by a huge pattern of grids, which will later revolve frequently and become prison bars. A woman comes on, tensely dresses herself in suffragette colours, and walks steadfastly away. She is Emily Davidson, and big screens above the grids show archive film of the Derby; the famous film clip of Davidson throwing herself under the horses is repeated several times.
Emily Davidson is the only actual suffragette name-checked in this production. The others are made-up characters – so we get nothing of the extraordinary complex dominating personalities of the Pankhursts. Rebecca Lenkiewicz prefers things simpler.
The next couple of scenes set the tone. Some Liberal politicians lounge around and cynically discuss the suffragette movement; they are given the names of real men (Asquith, Grey, Birrell, etc.) but no background or sophistication of ideas. They simply sound crass.
In contrast, some women arrested for window-smashing are shown as feisty, dedicated and witty. We see them arriving at Holloway, running intellectual rings round stupid warders, and being generally marvellous. The contrast is stark and unquestioned. The men are stupid and cowardly, while the women are brave and right. The writer never considers any possible reasons that the Liberal government might have had for opposing an extension of the suffrage; this is not a play of ideas.
It was the treatment of the warders that first made me dislike this play. Oscar Wilde’s letters describe the warders he met at Reading and elsewhere, just a few years before this. Some were insensitive, but others were kind and considerate – one was something of a hero. The Holloway warders shown by Rebecca Lenkiewicz are all unthinking cogs in a machine, obeying their orders and uncaringly passing on institutional cruelty. I think there would be a real play in a genuine study of these warders; they were part of a prison system whose settled culture was suddenly disturbed by the influx of articulate, fanatical women. How did they cope? How did it change them? Rebecca Lenkiewicz is not interested in such issues.
The first act gradually develops into a study of the growing passion of Lady Celia Cain for Eve, a young working-class suffragette. They kiss a short while before the interval.
The first half of the play seemed a bit obvious, but had potential. The short scenes were disjointed, but went at a good pace, and there were possibilities for development. The second act, though, was something of a train-wreck.
After our ice-creams we came back to see where Rebecca Lenkiewicz would take the play. Would she show the tensions within the movement? Would she tell the interesting story of the suffragettes during the war? No. She concentrated on the confused psychology of Lady Celia, in whom she obviously is a great deal more interested than I could be. Lady C has nights of passion with Eve (not very passionate passion, though – anyone attracted to the play by its come-on title is likely to be disappointed). Then they row. She also has a row with her long-suffering husband, who turns out to be quite a decent bloke. She goes to the Ritz and seduces a porter. It all goes on, rather.
The issues of suffragism drift out of focus (or more out of focus – they were never really in). The leader of the movement is not the steely and difficult Emmeline Pankhurst, whose desire for control alienated many intelligent suffragettes, such as Cicely Hamilton and May Sinclair, but a fictional character called Florence Boorman, played by Susan Engel as an ancient saint. Lenkiewicz can’t do much with this character, so the suffragette movement goes nowhere.
The second act comes together a bit for a nasty scene where Eve is subjected to forcible feeding. This is gripping, and most unpleasant to watch, but once again the genuine dramatic possibilities are missed. The prison doctor is like just about all the other men in the play, cynical and heartless. He goes through the process with a sort of weary gusto. There was no indication of the real dilemmas faced by such men. They were dealing with hunger strikers on the verge of starvation. As doctors, should they have allowed the women to die? Forcible feeding was a procedure used on lunatics who would not eat; the suffragettes’ gesture politics forced the prison authorities into a situation where this was the only alternative to allowing death by starvation (until the Cat and Mouse act, which allowed hunger-strikers to be temporarily released, which saved suffragettes’ lives while defusing their gesture). Once again the complexities of the issue were fudged, and it did not help that as Eve Jemima Rooper looked extremely bonny, and very unlike an emaciated hunger-striker. Rebecca Lenkiewicz went for the obvious – cynical brutal doctor, and shocked nurse seeing the procedure for the first time; her stunned reaction showed the audience how they ought to feel, if they hadn’t already twigged for themselves that this was a nasty procedure.
The play drifts to an end, with Lady Celia getting more and more interested in herself, while my interest in her declined. Eve slit her wrists, but didn’t mange to kill herself. The end is scrappy. Lady celia gets dressed at the end, as Davidson did at the beginning, but I’m not sure why.
There is a line just before then end that goes something like: “Orders have come from headquarters that if war comes we have got to stop the campaign and be patriotic.” This is bad history.
Three days after the start of the war, the leaders of the movement were still ambivalent. Christabel Pankhurst wrote in The Suffragette of 7th August, 1914:
As I write a dreadful war-cloud seems about to burst and deluge the peoples of Europe with fire, slaughter and ruin – this then is the World as men have made it, life as men have ordered it.
A man-made civilisation, hideous and cruel enough in time of peace, is to be destroyed.
The war is seen as “Nature’s vengeance…upon the people who held women in subjection.”
Soon, however, the Pankhursts reconsidered their position, for a number of reasons. One was that the stories of German atrocities in Belgium made the war a feminist issue – the reprisals against civilians, and especially the stories of rape that were coming out of Belgium, meant that the righteous female indignation that had nourished the suffragette movement was now very much on the side of the war effort.
Also, the Pankhursts may have realised that their illegal tactics were becoming counter-productive. The suffragettes had very good arguments on their side, but these were obscured by the civil disobedience. Any government change of policy would have been construed as giving in to blackmail.
The war gave an opportunity for a change in tactics. The Pankhursts (with the exception of Sylvia) turned The Suffragette into Britannia, and officially put their movement behind the war effort (maybe following rather than leading their members in this). Cleverly they positioned themselves as more warlike that the government (like those other great communicators of the war years, Horatio Bottomley and Lord Northcliffe). They marched through London, demanding universal male conscription, and compulsory war work for women, too. In part, this was calling the men’s bluff. A major argument against female suffrage was that in the last resort men could be called upon to fight and die for their country, while women could not. Now the WPSU demanded that all men lived up to this.
The participation of women in the war, nursing and helping the war effort, and taking over the jobs of men who had gone to fight, made the case for women’s suffrage unanswerable.
Maybe the lesbian love story at the centre of this play might have been enough to sustain a small play in a fringe venue. In the context of the epic-scale Olivier theatre, it looks trivial, and trivialises the history against which it is set.
To be fair, not all the audience shared my low view of the piece. Two young women sitting in front of me were on their feet yelling vociferous enthusiasm during the curtain call. But perhaps they were friends of the cast.