Writer: Ros Connelly
Director: Kath Burlinson
Reviewer: Claire Hayes
Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Derby in 1913, this we know. So much else is conjecture, yet Elizabeth Crarer’s intelligent and absorbing portrayal indicates that, even if she were not intending to die, Emily’s actions in support of women’s suffrage had become increasingly radicalised.
“Deeds not words” is Emily’s mantra, as she paces her prison cell at the opening of this solo piece, written by Ros Connelly of Cambridge Devised Theatre. On a bare stage, we’re taken back to her young life and find she loves the poetry of Walt Whitman and bathing in the cold October sea.
Emily’s education is unusually advanced for a woman in Edwardian times, but the death of her father drives her to find employment as a governess. There, in her best hat, we witness Emily visiting Hyde Park, conferring with imagined others and unfurling a Votes for Women flag, as she hears Mrs Pankhurst speak.
Drawn into a cycle of protest and detention, Emily becomes ever more extreme. Her criminal convictions escalate from obstruction and window-breaking to arson and the assault of a Baptist minister she mistakes for Lloyd George. Each time, she repeats aloud the custodial sentence she’s been handed, never doubting her own religious beliefs, as she intones “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.”
Crarer marks imprisonment by throwing herself to the ground with remarkable physicality. She’s bound with a rope that proves particularly versatile; in jail, a metaphor for resistance and a brush to scrub floors. Once released, it becomes a bouquet of flowers, an early telephone and even the handlebars of a bike.
Kath Burlinson’s direction creates a world from only a chair and a few props in a suitcase, counter-balanced by Stuart Brindle’s atmospheric lighting and sound. Yet for most of the production, this proves more than enough.
Crarer holds the audience’s attention throughout with energy and emotional depth. Arching over the back of the chair, she’s repeatedly force-fed, a barbaric procedure which knocks out teeth and causes her to retch. Despite growing physical frailty, Emily hides in a heating duct of the House of Commons and spends the night of the 1911 census in a cupboard, so she can legitimately claim it as her address. Only on occasion is it difficult to gauge how her increasing activism is causing isolation from her fellow suffragettes.
Many of the issues raised here about the nature of protest and radicalisation are still relevant today. This thought-provoking production demonstrates how those whose rights are denied can be driven to ever-greater extremes, when faced with an entrenched wall of government. Was Emily only attempting to drape a banner over the King’s horse when she died? We’re moved to contemplate, but what’s clear is the sacrifice she was prepared to make for her cause.
Reviewed on 15th March 2014.