Saturday, 26 July 2008

"her naked skin" (rebecca lenkiewicz)

friday 25th july 2008

“her naked skin”
A new play by Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Celia Cain ………..… Lesley Manville
Eve Douglas ………..Jemima Roper
Florence Boorman …. Susan Engel
William Cain ………. Adrian Rawlins

Director…………….. Howard Davies
Designer ……………. Rob Howell

Music played live by The Elysian Quartet

At Olivier, National Theatre

"Love is just fear I suppose. Masquerading as a fever. Then you explore each other and suddenly you have licence to become totally pedestrian. And ultimately abusive.
London 1913. Militancy in the Suffragette Movement is at its height. Thousands of women of all classes serve time in Holloway Prison in their fight to gain the vote. Amongst them is Lady Celia Cain who feels trapped by both the policies of the day and the shackles of a frustrating marriage. Inside, she meets a young seamstress, Eve Douglas, and her life spirals into an erotic but dangerous chaos.

Men don't like to see a convoy of women.It unsexes us.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz's "Her Naked Skin" is set at a crucial moment when, with emancipation almost in sight, women refuse to let the establishment stand in their way.

This is a perhaps deceptively straight-forward story about the Suffragettes with a love story between two of the women at its heart. Set entirely in 1913 it chronicles through scenes that slide under the great revolving frame of the prison and span from the moment Emily Wilding Davison sets off to the Derby where she will be killed stepping out in front of she King's horse wearing her Suffragette sash through scenes set in the House Of Commons, Holloway Prison, the Cain's posh drawing room, Eve's Limehouse attic bedroom, a wooded shooting party, a gentleman's club. London street and park scenes This is all achieved with a huge ironwork set on a trailer that keeps the prison cells the dominant and central structure throughout the play - whatever else we are watching we are never allowed to forget or lose sight of the women in prison. And this for me is the power of this show: it finishes with an enormous collage projection of photographs of woman after woman after woman after woman. This show is an attempt to bring out of invisibility just one of the hundreds of personal stories of the women who fought so long - 60 years! - and hard - women were often imprisoned six, seven or more times and in 1912, 90 of the 102 Suffragettes in prison are being forcibly fed! This play forces us to witness the horrible treatment Suffragettes were subjected to while also giving us a behind-the-scenes sense of the lives that were being lived through, with, alongside and pitted against their actions. And with this we get to see just how complete and secure and smug were men and the supremacy and power of their systems -the government, the law, the prisons, the doctors…

The weakness of the play is that the role of Eve - the working girl from Limehouse who falls in love with Lady Celia - is badly underwritten. Lesley Manville is perfect in her role - suave and strong and quick and confident in her class and intellect with woman, vulnerable and angry and frustrated and stuck in her position as a wife and a woman in a man's world. But because of this and because we get to know so much about her life and virtually nothing about Eve's, this arrives too much a story about a rich woman and her young pretty plaything rather than the fully developed love story between two equally strong and interesting protagonists it seems to want to be.

So, for me a flawed play that I suspect will grow and find a stronger and surer focus - the revolve got stuck one hour in the preview night we saw it, and we were forced to take an extra interval which stilted the momentum and made it a longer night.
Nevertheless this show gave me vivid pictures and ‘memories’ of an historical legacy we have inherited and makes me face the considerable costs that went into to making it happen.
And also to notice that still woman’s stories are perhaps received uneasily in a world more used to his-stories.


mark trezona said...

CH writes:
Thankyou for a wonderful al fresco supper infront oh so glamorous Thames at night.You are quite right one should seek out the intention of the playwright- what was she trying to achieve rather than by judging it by other plays written for a completely different audience, living in a different time as I was by referring to Ibsen's Rosmersholm. There were allot of v. good things about it- the setting and the direction, some of the acting etc. but-----what was it about, exactly? A drama set against the suffragette movement or a drama illustrating what the movement was about?

mark trezona said...

havve just read Emma John's review in The Observer, Sunday August 3 2008 and pretty much agree with everything she says:

"... Lady Celia Cain, the suffragette heroine of Her Naked Skin, falls in love with a factory girl, Eve, not because she pities her but because she needs an outlet - of excitement, of danger - from a life determined and constrained by men. The women meet in Holloway prison, where both have been sentenced for breaking windows - one of the 'agitations' organised as part of the suffragette campaign to win the vote for women - and their friendship, and later romance, is forged where the stoic camaraderie of the sisterhood meets the grim reality of hunger strikes and brutal forced feeding.

No, this is not a light play either, although Lenkiewicz's subject matter is leavened throughout with a sharp-tongued wit. The Holloway cells are a constant, oppressing presence on Rob Howell's set: Celia (Lesley Manville) and her fellow protesters are regular visitors to the prison, no sooner released than planning their next arrestable offence. Inside, we see the spirited defiance of women like Susan Engel's marvellous Florence Boorman, leading the troops and toughing out inhumane treatment in spite of her grey hairs ('Battalion of Death? They sound a bit soft,' the resilient old lady scoffs).

The problem is that the affair never quite convinces (director Howard Davies tries to shore it up with plenty of snogging, always a bad sign), nor does Lenkiewicz's coupling of illicit love and militant suffragism takes us anywhere particularly surprising. The most powerful scenes are those between Celia and her husband; Adrian Rawlins captures the frustrations of a man forced to watch his wife put herself in repeated danger, endures mocking from his fellow men, yet is considered a 'beast' by Celia herself.

It's not clear what sort of freedom Celia really wants - it seems a selfish kind that she requires from both her husband and her lover - and even a typically depth-charged performance from Manville can't stop her becoming a rather unsympathetic character. And if Lenkiewicz does leave us with a strangely bleak sensation (hold on, didn't the suffragettes triumph in the end?), she leaves, also, a forceful impression of how painfully the woman's right to vote was bought - one, I expect, that I will never forget."