By Fanny Charles

AS I left Salisbury Playhouse after the press night of Her Naked Skin, I overheard a male audience member comment that he was glad it was over because it was “all so emotional.”

And, in a way, that sums the whole thing up – really, these hysterical women don’t know what’s good for them; all we want to do is keep them safe (in boxes labelled “bouquet of roses” if they are upper class and “to be used as required” if they are working class).

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play was the first by a woman to be produced on the main Olivier stage of the National Theatre. It was first performed in 2008 and this is its regional premiere, a century after the vote was finally given to women over 30 and owning property; full enfranchisement did not come for another 10 years.

At that time (2008), reviewers were able to write that things had really changed – now you have to ask just what has changed, as we see the ongoing impact of #MeToo, revelations of gender pay differences at leading organisations (including BBC) and horrific treatment of women around the world, including the Yazidis of Iraq and the Rohinga of Burma. We even have an American President who can publicly mock (to loud cheers) a woman who has the courage to come forward and speak about sexual assault.

Votes for women! The full cast. Photo by Helen Murray

So this play is important and there has never been a better time to stage it. It shows the struggles of the suffragettes against the arrogant complacent forces of the government and its forces of law and order. The scene in which the young hunger-striker Eve is subjected to the torture of force feeding is horrible and shocking. This is recent history – for many of us, within the lives of our grandparents.

The play is flawed – the sub-plot of the passionate affair between the poor machinist Eve (Lorna Fitzgerald) and the wealthy, volatile Lady Celia Cain (Abigail Cruttenden) at times overwhelms the bigger picture, but it adds to a layered story of women trying to communicate, express themselves in their own words and through their own choices, fighting for the right to be heard and respected. Within that bigger picture, there is an unarguable right for a young woman, who has been raped by bosses since she was 15, to find a different sort of love. Some of us will also recognise deep truths in the character of the bored, frustrated Celia, mother of seven and married to a successful and not unkind lawyer. She is sharp-witted, reckless, energetic – but can she completely turn her back on the world she knows?

The strong central characters are supported by outstanding performances by Jane How as the imperious and unflinchingly brave Florence Boorman (an Emmeline Pankhurst figure), Rebecca Cooper as the gaoler Briggs and Robert Hands as Celia’s husband William.

The play is directed with insight and excellent pace by Wiltshire Creative artistic director Gareth Machin, with stunning lighting by Johanna Town, an impressive and versatile set by Dawn Alsopp and a powerful soundscape by Michael Scott.

The community chorus, including familiar faces from Salisbury’s Studio Theatre, helps to create the epic scale of the production, which runs until October 20.

Featured image: Lady Celia (Abigail Cruttenden, left) and Eve (Lorna Fitzgerald) in a scene in Holloway prison. Photo by Helen Murray.

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