Thought-provoking suffragette drama
This article is from 2011.
1913 was a year when suffragette militant violence turned inwards with devastating consequences. But while Emily Wilding Davison made headlines by stepping in front of the King’s horse at the Derby, Sylvia Pankhurst was engaged in a quieter but no less painful form of self-mutilation, and it’s the story of her prison hunger and thirst strike that takes centre stage in Claire Burlington’s short two-hander.
Dominique Jones’s bold blazing Pankhurst with her rallying cry that ‘the windows of the government and not the bodies of women shall be broken’ turns quickly into an altogether more introspective figure, left alone in her cell to contemplate the plates of tempting food placed in front of her, while her prison wardress (Sally Connelly) jealously longs ‘even for a lick’ of the goodies. Burlington gives Pankhurst a voice that is painstakingly articulate, sometimes too much so, as she describes the intricacies of force-feeding with a level of literary detail – possibly verbatim from Pankhurst’s diary - that when read aloud acts as a veil between us and the action. Far more effective is the use of the shadow screen behind which the wardress looms larger than a monster.
Burlington’s main shortcoming here however is wasting the opportunity to open up any dialogue between Pankhurst and the wardress. The majority of the play is made up from two separate monologues and by the time the characters finally come together it is too late for any real drama to come of it. While the wardress does shift from pantomime villain, watching the women as they sleep, to someone forced to contemplate her accountability in the treatment of them, her mantra of ‘I can’t change the rules’ doesn’t really get to grips with the paradox of female prison workers having to violently abuse women who were essentially fighting on their behalf.
The role of the suffragettes in securing votes for women has always been a contentious one and some would argue that they did more harm than good. But it seems that after the success of major productions such as Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Her Naked Skin and Linda Griffiths’s The Age of Arousal, the late 19th and early 20th century women’s movement is finally getting the stage time it needs to pick apart all its various threads, its triumphs, shortcomings and sheer horrors. Nourish, with its currents of self-sacrifice and conflict – not to mention the company’s commendable decision to donate proceeds to a women’s charity - feels like the opening to something larger, rather than the main event, but it’s an opening full of promise.
Paradise in The Vault, 0131 510 0022, until 28 Aug, 8.45pm, £5.00