Director: Abigail Pickard Price
Writer: Beverly Andrews
Inspired by The Forgotten Women of History podcast, Beverly Andrews’ Sophia is a one-act drama on the life of Indian suffragette Sophia Duleep Singh.
Filmed at the Arcola Theatre, a bare stage becomes the setting for Hampton Court Gardens. We are in the early years of the 20th century, and three friends: Annie, Sally and Irene have had a long day exploring the grounds and need to catch the tram back to London. The girls ask directions from a woman sat alone, selling newspapers. The woman is well dressed, and the girls’ interest is piqued when her accent betrays an upbringing that shouldn’t see her on the streets.
Sophia (played by Sakuntala Ramance) tells the girls that she is not just well bred; she is Royal. Her father was the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire. Duleep Singh came to England as a boy, his land seized by the Crown. He became a favourite with Queen Victoria. His carefree life was complicated when his mother arrives in England, after being imprisoned in India. She reminded him of his heritage and what had been lost. When Duleep (Mikhael Deville) is handed the Koh-i-Noor diamond to admire, the lines between ownership and theft, heritage and colonialism, become blurred and Duleep starts to rebel.
Sophia’s experience of watching her father rage against the imperialist machine shapes the rest of her life. She thinks about what her legacy should be. She meets women who have embraced feminism. A system that only allows half the population a vote, Sophia concludes, cannot call itself a democracy.
The play really heats up as Sophia’s connections take her to the heart of the Suffrage Movement. She meets Emmeline Pankhurst, and is mesmerised. She joins the Black Friday March. The event ends with police turning on the protesters and meting out violence and abuse. Despite experiencing discrimination, Sophia acknowledges her privilege. As Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, she is left unmarked. The attempt at oppression fails: photographs of the March end up on the front pages.
The Suffragette story told from a different perspective takes on themes of colonialism, systemic racism and violence to create a picture of Edwardian England that is far from the pre-war idyll that is usually presented to us. Andrews points to the alarmingly thin veneer of civility when it is exposed to resistance.
The connection between Sophia, Irene, Sally and Annie is particularly well drawn, and as the central performer, a lot rests on Sakuntala Ramance, but she creates a warm, engaging character. Sophia’s experience of being at the epicentre of Edwardian society, but also sidelined due to her race, is depicted by characters brushing past each other on the stage– near misses and deliberate snubs.
As the play ends we are reminded that the fight to be heard, and listened to, is not over. Marginalised voices are being unearthed, and like Sophia Duleep Singh, there will be uncomfortable truths to be told, but the journey to a society on equal terms becomes that little bit shorter.
Screening in person here