The last production in this year’s £10 Travelex season saw Rebecca Lenkiewicz lift the “curse” of the Olivier Theatre at the National – that, since it’s opening in 1963, not a single original play by a living female playwright has ever been staged. While the Olivier defends this unfortunate fact as a question of probability (only a small fraction of the unsolicited plays they receive are by women writers) it nevertheless seems fitting that Lenkiewicz should select the suffragette movement of the early 21st century as her subject.
Her Naked Skin is set in London in 1913, shortly after Emily Davison became the suffragette martyr at that year’s Derby. The archive footage of the incident is poignantly looped at the start, initiating the play’s motif of the vulnerability of female flesh and prefiguring its violent denouement.
The plot centres on two women separated in their everyday lives by differing socio-economic spheres but flung together by the suffragette movement at the height of its militancy. Lady Celia Cain and Eve Douglas, a working-class seamstress, are fellow inmates at Holloway prison. Here, the levelling squalor of prison life allows them to meet as equals, and their clandestine affair progresses, both in and out of prison, in parallel to the public escalation of the suffragette’s cause. Howard Davies’ elaborate staging, a revolving mesh of wire cages that evoke the intransigent pitilessness of the Edwardian penal system and serve as a neat metaphor for the “caged birds” made of women in Edwardian society.
While the historical setting provides a rich seam of material for Lenkiewicz to mine, the fascinating domestic and political antagonism between the suffragettes and their oppressors – the army of prison wardens, doctors and politicians seeking to subjugate them – plays second fiddle to the love story between the female leads. Lenkiewicz ’s supposition that we would be more interested in a steamy lesbian love affair is detrimental to the integrity of the piece as a whole. On stage there is no steam. The execution of the love scenes between Celia and Eve is too clinical to convince us that this narrative strand is what we should be interested in.
Which begs the question, is the sensationalist portrayal of lesbian sex a cynical manoeuvre by Lenkiewicz to ensure the play’s commercial success? Or, is it a less cynical manoeuvre to remind as wide an audience as possible (including the odd heterosexual male) of the sacrifices made by these courageous women to secure universal suffrage? Perhaps it is both. Considering that this play may be held as the litmus test for the viability of plays by contemporary female playwrights, that in itself could be no bad thing.
By Carolyn Butler
Her Naked Skin closes tonight. Photo by Catherine Ashmore