THE MAKING OF A MILITANT SUFFRAGETTE
Emily Wilding Davison died 101 years ago at the Derby, under the thundering hooves of the King’s horse. Nobody knows for sure whether she intended martyrdom: she has a return ticket and may simply have meant to disrupt the race in a typically risky stunt. Fearless inventiveness had for years marked her increasing frustration with the Liberal government’s refusal to enfranchise women.
It is her death which makes her famous and which ends this 70-minute solo show, but that is not its main focus. Written by Ros Connelly of Cambridge Devised Theatre, directed by Kath Burlinson and performed with engaging energy by Elizabeth Crarer, rather it traces the development and desperation of the militant condition itself. Davison was an educated university woman, determined and energetic, who worked her way to a first class degree after her father died and left the family poorer. We see her as a lover of Walt Whitman’s poems, a dreamer of independence, a sea-bathing romp of a girl.
Crarer gives her a fearless tomboyish physicality and a clear-eyed rather head-prefectish persona: after a brief sour desperate prison moment we meet her in flashback as she sees Mrs Pankhurst in Hyde Park, reads newspapers and the famous Almroth Wright tract about “A world rendered unwholesome by feminism” where “individual man showers upon individual woman…every good thing which, suffrage or no suffrage, she never could have procured for herself.”
She was, in short, radicalized. And thus became a victim of that age’s scandal: repeated arrest and hideous force-feeding which knocks out teeth and makes the subject retch in pain. Light and sound on the bare stage elegantly meet Crarer’s violent fall to the ground each time she is jailed. First for obstruction, then breaking windows, arson and at finally for accosting a Baptist MInister she mistook for David Lloyd George (she did apologize). We see her in prison, angry and intense, praying and muttering “righteousness is not shame” and “rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God!”. Between prison sentences she strides around addressing her invisible confreres or (more tenderly) her mother, chucking bricks through windows with satisfying crashes, and rather splendidly hiding in a heating duct and a cupboard inside the Palace of Westminster in the hope of accosting Prime Minister Asquith. Piquantly, she managed to stay hidden till after midnight on Census night so she could declare Parliament as her place of residence.
But what is most striking is that all this does gradually turn Emily a little mad. Her very murmur “I am not mad!” and her pacing of her cell with a bitter cry of “We cannot stop now!” indicates how long disillusion and official cruelty breeds nihilistic despair. We cannot quite know how true this was: but dramatically it convinces.
I saw it at Ruskin College Oxford, home of labour history serving adults from hard backgrounds with a thirst for learning: a place so inspiring that Gandhi made a point of visiting it. It fitted well. The tour of 18 theatres is a whistle-stop affair, but worth catching.
touring to 9th april: details, http://www.theproductionexchange.com