Writer: Ros Connelly
Director: Kath Burlinson
Reviewer: David Ralf
David Hanson MP for Delyn has to leave quickly after sitting us down and welcoming us to this special performance of a play about a suffragette icon – to vote. The final House of Commons vote for the day, on the Finance (No. 2) 2013-2014 Bill, is called, and he rushes back with a number of other MPs just in time for the start of the performance. The Lords in attendance didn’t have a vote, so they got better seats for the show. Throughout the performance in this multipurpose room in Portcullis House, two LCD screens, one green (for the Commons), and one red (for the Lords) are undimmed. It goes without saying that the venue makes this an especially poignant evening. The cupboard Emily Wilding Davison hid in overnight in order to be counted resident of the House of Commons in the 1911 Census is a window-breaking stone’s throw away. Female and male Members of Parliament voted for by women and men throughout the UK are given the chance to shape the future of the country where we sit. It was not so 100 years ago, and last year marked the centenary of Davison’s death under the King’s Horse at Epsom Downs.
This monologue performance from Elizabeth Crarer by Cambridge Devised Theatre succeeds in making a historical tragedy a truly dramatic one – it is not about suffragism or feminism so much as it is about political protest and struggle. By the time we see Davison plan to attend the derby she has been hollowed and brutalises by struggle, arrest, prison and forcefeeding under the 1913 Cat and Mouse Act. Her final arrest is for assaulting a man she took to be David Lloyd George – in fact a Baptist Minister. Her anger or her exhaustion seems almost to overtake her judgement. For her the militant drive of the Women’s Social and Political Union has mellowed, and feels a stranger at a garden party event. But she is still ardent, in her faith that God wants women to ‘own their own souls’, and that ‘deeds not words’ (the WSPU slogan, and the words on her gravestone) will effect change. Every prison sentence is a set back and an affirmation, and the destruction of the woman – but not her will – is the impressive force of this 70 minute play.
Crarer’s performance, with minimal props, and an unfamiliar setting is hugely engaging. She presents Davison’s trajectory with total commitment and complete assurance – from bright and driven academic, through impassioned and revolutionary writer and activist, to tired middle-aged firebrand. She throws mimed stones through imagined windows with real fury. It is difficult to watch her throw her head back as Emily force-fed, or watch her eyes soften as Emily is distanced from her family, and from her political allies.
With excellent sound design from Stuart Brindle speeches and songs from the era locate the play perfectly, while a rope, chair and suitcase stuffed with costumes serve as the production’s only design – the rope effortlessly becoming a cloth, a telephone or a heating duct in the Commons – always a tool, and always a restraint.
When the bell sounds half-way through the performance to announce that today’s business of the House of Commons is finished, Crarer grins and points to those unblinking screens, breaking character, just for a moment, to acknowledge where she is and what she is doing. Voting has finished for the day, but Emily wouldn’t see it start while she lived.
On tour until 9th April