IT is only ten years since Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play Her Naked Skin arrived on the National Theatre stage, the first play by a woman to be performed at the Olivier in its first 30 years.
At the time, critics commented on how far “we” had progressed since the suffragette days, then 90 years previously. In the intervening decade the inequalities of male and female bargaining power – in sex, money and social influence – have been shoved into a world spotlight. Margaret Attwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been brought to an international television audience.
How much HAVE things changed?
Salisbury Playhouse, under its new umbrella organisation Wiltshire Creative, continues its autumn season with a revival of Lenkiewicz’s play, directed by Gareth Machin, in the year that marks the centenary of the vote for landed women over the age of 30. Full emancipation didn’t come for ten more long years.
It’s a powerful work, set in Holloway Prison, the House of Commons, the streets of London, the homes of some of the characters and a gentleman’s club. And there’s a pervading sense that these crusty old buffers had convinced themselves they were doing the best they could for their womenfolk.
It starts as the Suffrage movement’s first martyr, Emily Davis on, prepares for her dive in front of the King’s horse at Epsom.
Lady Celia Cain, a recognisably entitled suffragette, is already a veteran protester and prisoner when she meets machinist Eve Douglas, tentative on her first march. They bond over the scent of tobacco, and before long are lovers. But Lady Celia, wife of a distinguished lawyer and mother of seven, has no real idea how Eve lives and is unable, and perhaps unwilling, to bring the girl into her own life.
Dawn Allsopp’s monumental set, decorated around the footlights by Suffragette memorabilia, with Michael Scott’s powerfully grating soundscape, all subtly lit by Johanna Town, brings the audience head on into the horrors of force feeding in Holloway, parliamentary braying, domestic conflict and snatched passions.
It is performed in Salisbury by an exceptional cast of professional actors and community performers (jarringly grouped in the programme like teams from the panto). Together they create the passionate determination for change and the sometimes-guilty camaraderie that the titled women found with their sisters from different backgrounds.
Abigail Cruttenden perfectly captures the brittle confusion of Lady Celia, a woman trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage to a man (sensitively played by Robert Hands) who she loved as a child.
Jane How is a commanding Florence Boorman, a bluestocking whose commitment to the cause overtakes all thought of her own physical well-being. Her psychological determination and ascerbic wit carries her and her fellow prisoners through hell and back outside.
Lorna Fitzgerald is Eve, a working class girl raped from the age of 15 who finds love and excitement with Lady Celia, and is trapped in the misery of rejection.
There is nothing easy about Her Naked Skin, and it may not be the ideal play for the traditional Salisbury audience, but its importance now, in the week when the vainglorious president of the “united” states apologises to his supreme court nominee that a woman has spoken out against him, could hardly be more obvious.
The production continues at Salisbury until 20th October.