DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Women of Aktion – Theatre Royal, York

Writer: Mick Martin

Directors: Jude Wright/Mick Martin

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Bent Architect’s Women of Aktion is one of many commemorations of the end of the First World War, but one which approaches it from a unique perspective. Advance publicity made it sound tempting and original, but also confusing, with two different and largely forgotten historical events rubbing up against each other in an imagined scenario: the Kiel Uprising of 1918 and the production of Ernst Toller’s play Draw the Fires in Manchester in 1935, directed by a young Joan Littlewood.

In fact, the main focus is to tell something of the truth about the Kiel Mutiny, the Littlewood-Toller episode serving as an entry point to the earlier story, often entertaining, but more two-dimensional than the Kiel scenes and not following through to any real conclusion – quite understandable really, as Mick Martin’s script makes clear that neither Toller nor Littlewood had much to say about each other and neither could be considered a reliable witness. 

The Kiel Uprising is mostly remembered as a mutiny of the German Fleet in Wilhelmshaven and Kiel in 1918 that contributed to the end of the war and of the German Empire. The play enlarges our view of these events. Rather than just a mutiny, the Uprising involved a workers’ insurgency on land which relied on the contribution of women as well as men – and, also, it was more than a contributory factor in the downfall of the Empire, it was a prime mover in the German people’s attempt to take back power for themselves.

Research, primarily by Jude Wright and Professor Ingrid Sharp of Leeds University, found the testimonies of women and girls involved in the uprising, testimonies which had been mouldering, unread, in dusty corners of libraries. Prime among these were the words of Gertrud Voelker, a secretary at the union offices.

How to realise these in a dramatic form? Remarkably – in a documented, but now largely forgotten piece of theatre history – Ernst Toller, failed revolutionary, political prisoner, expressionist playwright, exile from Hitler – was in Manchester in 1935 for the premiere of his play, Draw the Fires, an account of the Kiel Mutiny filled with heroic revolutionary sailors. The director was the left-wing feminist firebrand Joan Littlewood. In Women of Aktion the women of Kiel are summoned up by the violent arguments about the role of women that ensue between Toller and Littlewood – imagined, of course, though their antipathy towards each surely has a basis in truth.

Three talented and energetic female actors, dressed identically in black, take on multiple roles, sometimes signifying character change by a simple accessory, such as a scarf, acting out scenes in front of mobile screens which sketch out the location, switching seamlessly from song to speech, from conversation to oratory, from 1935 to 1918.

Neither Francesca Anderson’s furiously demotic Joan Littlewood nor Rachael Gill-Davies’ buttoned-up Toller, always sternly preserving his dignity, is remotely likable, but they are vividly characterised and the actors can summon them up by the twist of a scarf or the jut of a jaw. The tour takes in many types and sizes of theatre and in the confines of the York studio, the Manchester scenes came over as rather overpowering.

Both Anderson and Gill-Davies are excellent in various roles in the powerful German scenes, but here the key character is the dedicated and perceptive Gertrud Voelker, played to perfection by Claire Marie Seddon who also contributes some nifty trumpet playing and cameos of the entire cast of Draw the Fires.

Despite the non-stop action – does the play try to cram too much into 75 minutes? – and the switches in location and plot, Wright and Martin create a production of impressive clarity, well supported by music, performed live by the actors and in an atmospheric sound plot.

Touring nationwide | image: Contributed

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