Since 2015’s Suffragette film, and the many events in 2018 marking 100 years since partial female suffrage was granted (such as Suffragette City, Artichoke’s PROCESSIONS marches and the commissioning of a statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett in Parliament Square), there has been a renewed interest in the UK’s suffrage movement. Kate Prince’s Sylvia has now finally opened at the Old Vic as a full production, following its workshop run of 2018, and Theatre Lab Company have come up with their own take on the story: Emmeline.
Spanning the 30 years when the fight for women’s right to vote intensified (1898-1928), Beatrice Hyde’s play is a fairly straightforward re-telling of events; it covers key moments such as the formation of the WSPU, the turn to militant actions, the implementation of the Cat and Mouse Act, and Sylvia Pankhurst’s move into the fight for working class people’s right to vote.
When Kate Prince’s Sylvia was first announced, there was a lot of questioning as to why this member of the Pankhurst family was singled out, when she wasn’t quite as well known as her mother; this play shows exactly why. Sylvia’s attempts at intersectional activism, by campaigning on the basis of sex and class, make her seem ahead of her time – especially in the face of her mother and sister (Christabel) going full “Rule, Britannia!” by the time the First World War comes around. It’s interesting that the play is named after the matriarch, in some ways, as it doesn’t have a single-minded focus on her (or even portray her in the most sympathetic light) – perhaps it’s just because hers is the most recognisable name..
Though it is incredibly useful to have the year displayed, so you know when things are happening and how time is passing by, Christiana Maycea (character name: Girl with Newspaper…) is often left to function as a human prop by holding her newspaper to display the year throughout the scene, or otherwise doing something superfluous to the scene in the background (at one point she starts tearing up bits of paper). Her appearance in modern clothing at the very end (after sticking to the same simple white dress for the rest of the play) is also a bit jarring and, though it does have some logic to it, doesn’t feel strictly necessary. This role feels like it has been parachuted in to try and tie things together, without being properly developed.
While nothing is going to be 100% historically accurate, and obvious anachronisms can work in particular circumstances, the script does need a bit of a once-over in this regard. The Pankhurst sisters talking about their privilege – in that turn of phrase – and their other holier-than-thou dialogue feels a little awkward, and not at all natural. I’m also not sure about a scene in which Emmeline hallucinates a conversation with her deceased husband; though Richard Pankhurst was an important advocate of equal rights, it does feel a bit like the focus is being taken away from the women doing the work in this struggle. Maybe it’s an attempt to humanise her, given how disastrously & unfeelingly she handles her own daughter having a different opinion, but is that necessary?
Given the importance of music in the suffrage movement across the world, it’s a nice touch to include some strains of song at various points during the play. Some of the cast don’t seem to be the most confident of singers, so perhaps a bit of backup in the sound department might be useful, but it’s a touching way of showing the women’s unity at their marches and rallies. There is some sound used to enhance the production (courtesy of Annabelle Brown’s sound design), but I would suggest that some crowd sound effects would be a helpful addition, for one thing; it would make the rallies a lot more believable to have some hubbub & loud cheering, as there’s only so much an understandably small cast can do. An explosion sound effect would also come in handy for when the militant ‘Deeds Not Words’ campaign gets into full swing.
The depiction of the suffragettes’ time in prison, by having them hold cages over their heads, is an ingenious way of showing how restricted they were, as well as being an excellent way of keeping props and set to a minimum. The forcible feeding scenes, though difficult to watch, are an important part of the story and are tastefully performed, in part using a length of cloth – Phoebe Stapleton’s movement direction is key here.
Of all the performances on display, the two most compelling come from Matthew Wade as Keir Hardie, and Rujenne Greene as Christabel – despite her character becoming more and more odious as the play goes on. The relationship between Sylvia and Keir is a little clumsy at first, but through Wade’s thoughtful performance you can almost forgive him for being another of those men who doesn’t think through the consequences of infidelity. Given Greene’s powerful performance, it’s a shame that there isn’t the space to explore Christabel a bit more thoroughly; she is seen solely in her role as WSPU strategist, with one cursory allusion to her personal life late in the piece – though obviously it’s difficult to balance the material without the running time becoming too bloated.
My verdict? A useful timeline of events in the fight for female suffrage in the UK, with some compelling performances and interesting ideas – just a little refining required.
Emmeline ran at the Old Fire Station from 8-12 February 2023. It has limited engagements at Esher Theatre and Manchester Waterside Arts – full information can be found on the official website.