Her Naked Skin – August 2008

7/10

By Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 13th August 2008

This is not only a new play, but the first play by a living woman playwright to be produced on the Olivier stage. How apt that the play’s subject is the struggle for women to gain the right to vote. The set was a layered framework of hanging rectangular metal grids. Some of the grids were covered with metal mesh and some were open, creating an overall effect of a maze of bars and wires, which seems very appropriate for a play about suffragettes in prison. The grids at the front were in the shape of a cross – it didn’t seem to be significant in terms of the play but with such a complex set I doubt that it was unplanned. One spotlight hit a chair in front of this assemblage, a chair with a sash proclaiming ‘votes for women’ across it, also a jacket and hat. The rest of the set was lit in a blue gloom. I was impressed as soon as I saw it.

It got better. Each panel could move around, sliding up when needed, and some even moved from side to side. A large platform was moved forward after the second scene; this held the prison cells and was raised up enough for tables and chairs to be slid underneath on the revolve or just straight through. Occasionally the central platform was rotated so that we could focus on individual cells or to see the whole row from either side. At first I thought this might be distracting but actually it worked very well, adding extra movement and interest while characters were entering and leaving the cells.

The story had two strands which blended well together for the most part, but did stray apart for a while in the second half. The context for the play is the suffragette movement in the early 1900s, up to the beginnings of WWI. Within that story, two of the women who smash windows for the cause, and end up in prison as a result, form a sexual relationship and after the interval that relationship tends to take over from the broader story.

To deal with the suffragette part first; the play begins with a woman putting on the sash, jacket and hat that were on the chair and after a momentary pause, heading off stage. Then we see footage of the famous incident at the Derby, when Emily Davison threw herself in front of the horses as they were rounding Tattenham Corner, causing her own death a few days later from her injuries. It’s an emotional piece of film, and it was projected repeatedly on large screens behind the metal grids. So immediately we were confronted with the lengths that many of these women were prepared to go to in order for their sisters to be able to vote.

The next scene took us from the moving to the funny, as tables and chairs revolved onto the stage for a meeting of important people with a female secretary also in attendance. The men were discussing what issues would be raised in the House of Commons that day and they generally seemed to dislike all the fuss and bother that these silly women were creating with their suffragette nonsense. After one comment condemning the intelligence of women in general, they had to appease the secretary by saying ‘present company excepted, of course’ – trust me, gents, that doesn’t help. (And the secretary wasn’t impressed either.) Their main concern about the Derby incident, apart from the health of the horse (it survived) was whether Davison was going to die and become the first suffragette martyr. In the end, the men decided the Irish question would probably dominate that day’s business.

The next scene takes place on a bare stage, at least at the front, as a number of women are gathering in an apparently unconnected way, just milling about as you do. One of them checks the time with a newspaper seller – seven minutes to six. Another of the women is clearly nervous – turns out it’s her first time. She’s so pent up she takes out her hammer and smashes a window a few minutes ahead of schedule, so the rest of the women do the same. There’s lots of breaking glass sounds – none of the real thing, thank goodness – and the women run off, exhilarated.

The next scene is where the cells come forward and they pretty much dominate the stage from now on. As the women arrive in the prison, they’re treated to the routine of having their names checked, given their numbers, aprons and kit and I noticed they were each weighed. I presume this was part of monitoring their health for when some of them inevitably went on hunger strike.

There’s a fair bit of banter, not all of it friendly, between the women and the prison staff. Florence, a veteran of the cause, insists on her occupation being described as suffragette and is angry they’ve been allocated to the wrong accommodation. They’re political prisoners in her book, not common criminals, and she quotes the rules like she wrote them. The guard in charge, Potter, points out that they’re in for criminal damage, which is a fair point, so tough luck. Some of the women are regulars in the prison – did they keep their cells for them, I wonder? – and one, the lady who was asking for the time earlier, turns out to be Celia Cain. The nervous woman, the one who jumped the gun, is Eve Douglas. I’ll just mention here that finding out who the characters are takes quite a while. Also, I was unsure at the end which of these characters was meant to be fictional – I assume Celia and Eve are, but I don’t know – and which historical. There are real people in the play, such as Asquith and Keir Hardie, and real events, such as the Derby day incident and the Cat and Mouse Act, but this lack of clarity has left me feeling a little unsure about the level of dramatisation versus the level of historical fact, and in my view that weakens the impact of the play somewhat. Anyway, the women are shown to their cells and there’s a nice exchange between Celia and the main female warden, Briggs. Briggs is very sparing of her words, never using two when one will do, and Celia has a nice line about this just before her prison door clangs shut.

The next scene sets up the most unpleasant aspect of the play – the forcible feeding of the women on hunger strike. Through various scenes we learn that the legal basis for this only applies to lunatics in asylums, but the law is being ignored in a desperate attempt to prevent the women from killing themselves and becoming martyrs. All we get this time around is a brief explanation of the process and the risks to the women if the tube goes down the wrong way – they end up getting pleurisy and dying, as it’s always fatal. Fortunately that’s all for now, so it’s back to the prisoners as they work in the kitchens next morning. Eve and Celia manage to have a surreptitious chat and start to make a connection, but for now I’ll leave off their story until I’ve dealt with the rest.

There’s a brief glimpse of the sort of debate some MPs were trying to have in the Commons, but the Government keep diverting the subject away to something more innocuous or occasionally something quite important, such as the Irish question. There’s no love lost between Keir Hardie and Asquith at this stage.

Celia’s husband visits her in prison and this is the first glimpse we get of the way the suffragettes’ commitment and determination (or, as the men put it, stubbornness) is affecting their families. Her husband is a top lawyer and he does his best to support Celia in her work, but he’s obviously feeling the strain. They chat about various things – the political situation, Scott’s death at the South Pole, one of their sons wants to marry – and it’s clear that what she’s doing to gain the vote for women is more important to her than her family. Her husband wants her to see a psychiatrist when she gets out in the hope that if she’s declared mentally unfit she won’t be sent back to prison in the future, or at least she’ll be spared some of the worse aspects of their treatment inside. Given that forcible feeding was originally intended for crazy people, I wasn’t sure that was the best move, but I can sympathise with his concern and desire to protect her.

The next scene clearly takes place after the women have been released. Florence is on her soapbox in Hyde Park and some of the men are taking offence at her speech. One chap has a go at Celia for smoking and she quite happily mouths off right back at him, in much better language of course, as befits a well-educated woman. He eventually takes a swing at her and manages to jostle her to the ground before the men around them get him under control and see him off. She’s not bothered, but it shows the sort of response the women could get from time to time. It also shows that Celia is now smoking, which is relevant in terms of her relationship with Eve.

Then Eve is back in prison and takes matters into her own hands when she can’t get the light turned off. She takes her metal cup or jug and smashes it. She’s then dragged out of her cell. Immediately after this, Celia visits Dr Stein and they have a brisk and interesting conversation, somewhat guarded on Celia’s part. I wasn’t sure if there was any sexual frisson between them – the doctor seemed keen to see her once a week after her next stint in prison and I wasn’t sure it was an entirely professional interest – but Steve didn’t detect anything, so maybe it was my imagination.

The next scene has Florence and Celia doing some work with posters or leaflets. Celia hasn’t been focussing on her work and she and Florence argue over Eve’s commitment to the cause. They have quite an argument, though not past the bounds of friendship, and there’s some lovely lines. At the end of the scene, Celia makes some comment about Florence finding plenty of work in the Russian women’s army, and Florence replies with “The Battalion of Death? Sounds a bit soft to me”, beautifully delivered.

There’s a scene where Celia visits Eve in prison, and then we get another chance to see Celia’s home situation. Her husband wants her to give up the demonstrations and getting herself locked up, but she’s not remotely interested in backing off. They have a nasty squabble, showing deep cracks in the relationship, and he heads out to do some more drinking. We also become aware that their sex life is non-existent, so no wonder he’s unhappy. She does seem a cold type, this Celia, never giving herself fully to anything but the cause.

However after a short scene where Florence is dragged out of her cell, having attempted to barricade herself in, and is given a good hosing down by the guards, we see Celia and Eve together in bed, both in dressing gowns, and enjoying each other’s company in a very intimate manner. All seems well with them now, and after the interval, during a practice shoot for the women in Epping forest, they’re canoodling in as much secrecy as they can.

Celia’s husband William is at his club in the next scene and getting some stick from the other members. Some are supportive, at least to the extent of telling the more aggressive ones to shut up, but ultimately William punches the most belligerent chap to the ground. Then Florence is visited in her cell by the doctor and there’s a discussion of force feeding methods. He’s becoming disillusioned by the process and wants her to use her authority to get the other women off hunger strike. She refuses, but in their debate we learn a great deal about the suffering caused by the force feeding, the retribution the women take on the doctors who do it once they’re out, and that Florence’s imprisonments have meant her missing her sister’s final days and her funeral, a fact which makes even this strong woman show her emotions.

Celia and Eve spend some time in a park at night, then later Celia’s husband gives her an ultimatum; give up the hunger strike next time she’s in prison or he’ll disown her. She won’t be allowed back into his house. Their argument has some lovely touches of humour, such as when she points out that she’s borne him seven children and he comments that he had actually noticed that fact. He’s fed up being treated as if he were some savage who doesn’t understand and doesn’t have needs of his own, while she’s lost her love for him long ago and doesn’t know how to handle this change in their lives.

The next scene shows us bath time at the prison. Florence doesn’t pick up the towel Briggs throws at her and there’s a short scuffle of wills as Briggs insists on her picking it up, but eventually Briggs’ deeply buried kindness starts to peep out and she rescues the towel herself. Celia and Eve have a meeting in a tea-room, with Celia keen to avoid being seen by a lady she knows, then Celia is trying to have a fling with a chap called Charlie, in a bedroom at the Ritz where he works, and then Celia visits Eve again in prison.

Then comes the dreaded scene. We get to see Eve being force fed by the doctor. It’s a gruesome experience to watch, so God knows what it was like to endure for those who actually went through it. Although I’ll go into some detail here (those of a nervous disposition may wish to skip a paragraph or two) I must confess to covering my eyes up for the insertion of the feeding tube and for parts of the feeding. However, I got the gist, and the whole setup, with the reactions of all the people involved, was important.

We’d seen the chair being set up in an earlier scene where the regular doctor was explaining things to the new boy. A sheet was placed under the chair, with straps being laid ready on either arm and on the chair back. There was a large funnel with a long rubber tube and about half way along it there was a fist-sized bulge. There was also an enamel jug. This time around the new person was a nurse, and she was the one who had to do the pouring. Eve was tied to the chair and held down while the doctor chose to put the tube down her nose. This is the yucky bit. I know it wasn’t real, but I’m squeamish about anything medical. A lot of the tube ‘went down’ her nose – the doctor commented that you have to get about twenty inches down them so the food will reach the stomach – and then the doctor tells the nurse to pour. She has to tell him if it’s not going down so he can do something about it; in fact, although it is going down, he decides to hold Eve’s nose shut anyway. The mixture is eggs and brandy, and once it’s all gone there’s the tube to get out and then she’s helped back to her cell. Gruesome doesn’t begin to cover it, although I appreciate there’s worse things happening in the world right now. The nurse was obviously in shock after seeing what was being done to these women, and Briggs shows us another level of her kindness when she gently helps the nurse to get off the stool she’s been standing on, frozen with shock.

After a scene showing us Celia arriving home after her night on the tiles and having a bit of a row with her husband, we see Eve at her washbasin, slitting her forearms and holding them in the water until she collapses. I thought this was at the prison, but the text says at her lodgings. It’s confusing, because the next scene is back in the prison, and both Florence and Celia are visiting Eve who has her arms bandaged. Florence leaves first and then when Celia says her goodbyes and leaves, the prison recedes into the background, with Eve and the wardress spotlit. I got that this was the relationship fading into the past.

The final scene has Celia sitting in Florence’s house, waiting for William to come and pick her up. From her chat with Florence, it appears she’s decided to go back to live with him and from her chat with him it appears she’s been away for three months. Florence has mentioned meeting Eve while she was out – Eve’s going to be married, to a watch maker. There’s some chat about the upcoming war and the decision to drop the protests and be patriotic once it’s declared. When William arrives her bags are taken away, but Celia’s suddenly overcome with emotion and her husband realises she’s not going to be coming back to him. She makes some comment about a wolf they both saw in the forest when they were little – I have absolutely no idea what that was about – and he leaves. End of play.

The suffragette parts were very interesting, even though I saw more than I wanted to of the force feeding. The relationship between Eve and Celia was superbly well performed but looking back, and occasionally at the time, I wondered what the point of it was. I couldn’t see clearly the connection between getting votes for women and hopping into bed with one, especially as Celia did her best to destroy the relationship once it looked like it might amount to something.

From the early meetings at the window smashing protest and the prison stint, we see the connection develop quickly as indicated by Celia taking up smoking, which she never used to do apparently. Eve smokes a lot. They’re obviously enjoying each other physically, with the scene in bed and the stolen kisses in Epping Forest, but when they get to the park Celia suddenly introduces the fact that she’s had affairs before and Eve is taken aback by this. She seemed to think their relationship was special, something to build on for the future; now Celia is talking about the inevitable time when they’ll be bored with each other, indicating this is just another fling for her or at least that’s what she wants Eve to think. It’s certainly the end of the fun part of the relationship and despite Eve trying to persuade Celia to carry on, Celia is determined to stop the affair completely regardless of her own suffering. Hence the attempt to have a one-night fling with the man from the hotel. It’s clear her marriage is on the rocks and she loves Eve, but she won’t go the final mile and commit to anything. Why?

I have no answers to this, but I must also say that the performances were excellent, not just for these parts but for all of the characters. They kept me involved and entertained, so while my description of the storyline may seem bitty, the pace of the play meant I was never bored. There was more humour than I’ve indicated, although the subject matter meant there was also a lot of heavier, emotional content to deal with. Overall, it felt like a very good play, and with a bit more work and more correlation between the two aspects, it could be a great play. Steve felt that if the author had written this ten years down the line, with more experience, it would have achieved greatness. Still it’s a tremendous offering regardless, and I wish it every success in its run.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me