Her Naked Skin

Hazel Tsoi-Wiles reviews a production of Her Naked Skin, a suffragette romance which whisks the audience back to a time of protest on the street, activists smashing windows and police clamp-downs

Hazel Tsoi-Wiles, 23 December 2011

Suffragettes, one holds a placard reading

Hundreds of women are imprisoned in Holloway for fighting for the right to vote. Two women from two very different social classes meet while in jail and fall in love. Their continuing relationship outside unsettles everything and everyone around them, while oppression of the protesters becomes increasingly brutal.

1913 should not feel current - but it feels like today in Tower Theatre Company's production of Her Naked Skin, by Rebecca Lenkiewicz.

Performed at the Bridewell Theatre, close to the site of the Occupy LSX, the on-stage protesters brandishing placards, smashing windows and resisting arrest only appear different to those on our evening news broadcasts due to their Edwardian dress and distinct lack of men among them.

MPs debate how to stop the protesters without making martyrs of them, they discuss how to stop the media from encouraging support such a cause. It is such familiar territory, the term suffragette could be substituted with any current nomenclature for protesters and the script would still be coherent.

They peel potatoes together. Their hands touch. They fall in love

For this reason, Her Naked Skin is a great choice for this non-professional acting group's Protest! season, about those willing to use violent action to achieve their aim, and the consequences for their personal lives.

The suffragettes have abandoned peaceful protest and are calling for women's right to vote with violent action. Emily Wilding Davison throws herself under the king's horse. Women from all backgrounds gather to smash windows on high streets and proudly proceed to Holloway Prison for several months.

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Lady Celia Cain is among them, a protest-regular who glibly complains about the prison garb as if she was a tourist on an amusing holiday from upper class life. She meets Eve Douglas, an impressionable East End seamstress campaigning for somewhat unclear reasons. They peel potatoes together. Their hands touch. They fall in love.

Outside prison, they continue their intimate relationship from within the suffragette campaign. Meanwhile, Emily Wilding Davison dies and William Cain, Celia's supportive but wounded husband, gets drunk at his club, surrounded by men hooting at the own goal this impetuous death has scored for the suffragettes.

The production needs more rattling of cages, more hair-raising, more rabble-rousing, less stroking of her naked skin

The performances are strong with admirable attention to detail in all the characters. Simona Hughes as Celia Cain conveys the conflict beneath her breezy persona with impressive subtlety, providing depth and complexity to an otherwise irritating upper class woman whose latest hobbies are protesting and lesbianism. Eve Dougas is pleading and vulnerable as played by Carla Evans, eliciting sympathy rather than exasperation as she clearly craves kindness and companionship, and becomes a suffragette to give meaning to her limited working class life.

The part seems under written, missing the class conflict in the affair - compared to E. M. Forster's novel Maurice, a similar Edwardian homosexual, upper class/working class love affair, Lenkiewicz does not delve very deeply into Eve's motives and emotional journey.

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William Cain and Florence Boorman are excellently played by Colin Guthrie and Sheila Burbidge respectively. Burbidge makes the garrulous Florence likeable, commanding respect for her suffragette commitment while rising grandly above the disdain for women agitators.

But it is Guthrie who gives the most complex and intriguing performance of the production: he is a man unwilling to deny his wife her ambitions but unable to provide what she wants. He supports the suffragette campaign but resents the personal reasons why Celia pursues it. He realises he cares for her more than she cares for herself or the women's vote but it makes no difference to Celia, who is using a public campaign to disguise her personal crusade to self-fulfilment. His is a difficult and lonely position, and the best example of the rock and the hard place of the suffrage movement.

These acts of misogyny maddeningly still happen now, in the UK and all over the world

Her Naked Skin is performed very well by Tower Theatre Company and a timely revival - it was first performed at the National Theatre in 2008, the first play by a living female writer to grace that stage. (See The F-Word's review of its first outing here.)

The silencing of women, and the open abuse of women who refuse to be silenced is still a problem. Eve Douglas is brutally force fed in prison 'for her own good' and Celia Cain is abused and attacked on the streets by angry young men; these acts of misogyny maddeningly still happen now, in the UK and all over the world.

This production could benefit from more agitation and indignation. It needs the agit-prop fervour of a Brecht-style call to action, and needs more rattling of cages, more hair-raising, more rabble-rousing, less stroking of her naked skin to emphasise the importance of the Suffragettes' campaign. Her Naked Skin is an important play to see back on stage - may there be many more revivals as good as this one to keep the suffragette message alive and very loudly kicking.

Publicity photos from the Tower Theatre production, by Alexander Knapp

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Hazel Tsoi-Wiles

Hazel Tsoi-Wiles is membership secretary of the Royal Society of Literature and a contributing editor at Londonist

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