Her Naked Skin

// 31 July 2008

suffplay.gifI suspect I’m not alone in being a bit vague on my suffragette history.

So I was really impressed with Her Naked Skin, by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, on right now at the National Theatre. The play is set in 1913, and follows a few of the more militant suffragettes at the height of the movement – beginning with Emily Davison’s death, through force feeding of women on hunger strike at Holloway Prison, and the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, which allowed women to be released from jail long enough to recover a bit, then incarcerated again – so they didn’t die in prison.

The plot also hinges on a love affair between Lady Celia Cain (Lesley Manville) and Eve Douglas (Jemima Rooper), a younger seamstress, providing a window into some of the class tension in the movement, the private lives of these political activists and the internal politics of the suffrage movement (yes, the infighting might look quite familiar!) All of this is played out on a fantastic set – dominated by cages representing prison cells at Holloway.

But it was Susan Engel’s performance as an older suffragette named Florence which really stood out for me. The character is a non-nonsense leader, who refuses to bow to the violence and degredation of the prison system through wit and pure front. She is charismatic, unapologetic, hilarious and above all brave. The dialogue overall is excellent, but Engel gets the best lines, and delivers them magnificently.

And, despite the seriousness of the subject matter – including uncompromising depiction of force-feeding, the play is extremely witty overall. Lenkiewicz portrays the suffragettes as steely, committed, radical, individual human beings who didn’t always get along, but were also funny – and she sends up the politicians standing in the way of women’s suffrage to great effect as well.

You can see a trailer on the National Theatre’s website. Photo by Catherine Ashmore, used with permission.

Comments From You

Laura // Posted 31 July 2008 at 2:08 pm

That sounds like it could be a pretty awesome production. I hope that the show makes its way to Manchester!

I recently watched Alan Plater’s film “Shoulder to Shoulder” which is about the suffragettes and in particular Annie Kenney. That too is worth a watch, although I didn’t like how Annie was depicted as being a bit suggestible and not very free thinking… But with the focus on a working class woman in a pretty middle class organisation, I guess it makes for an interesting story.

Ros // Posted 31 July 2008 at 11:17 pm

In agreement with Laura on the “Shoulder to Shoulder” front. Really good film but could’ve throttled Annie Kenney at some points.

Thanks for this review. Will most certainly make the effort to pop down London-way and see it. Sounds refreshing.

Laura // Posted 1 August 2008 at 3:43 pm

Haven’t seen shoulder to shoulder… but Annie Kenney *was* a bit suggestible and not very free-thinking – just very close to Christobel and Emmeline (didn’t get on particularly well with Sylvia). In a way I think it’s a shame she is always the focus of ‘working-class suffragette’ discussions as there were other lesser known figures who are equally interesting, as well as large number of working class footsoldiers (some of whom broke off with Sylvia in 1914 to form the East London Federation of the Suffragettes) who show that the movement was wider than many people think (though still very urban).

m Andrea // Posted 1 August 2008 at 6:57 pm

I would just like to point out that in every generation of feminists, the ones who pushed the boundaries which result in where you are today — those women were considered RADICAL for their time.

The regular feminists were off in the corner, bonding with the men over their hatred of radical feminists.

Radical feminists did this without you.

Linda // Posted 3 August 2008 at 2:19 pm

I’ve been studying aspects of suffragette history for the better part of 20 years, so I went to Her Naked Skin with more than a little trepidation: there’s so much that even thinking (ie, feminist) women don’t know about the movement, I was afraid to see how it was depicted. I needn’t have worried. While I would have liked to see a little more about the pragmatic reasons women would have had for wanting the vote at that crucial period in time, I thought the play did an excellent job of encapsulating a very complex movement, and one literally being forced to destroy itself by government pressure to drive it underground.

I agree that Susan Engel was absolutely marvelous, but Lesley Manville’s Celia Cain just filled the stage for me. The character could easily have been an unsympathetic one, a woman grown so unhappy in her heterosexuality that she consistently sweeps aside both the fears and frustrations of a well-intentioned husband and the seven children she gave birth to. Yet Manville gives her such longing and sincerity of purpose that my heart ached for her.

Shoulder to Should was what kindled my interest in the movement as a girl. I haven’t seen it since it first came out, but I seem to remember a certain grimness throughout. That’s one of the things I also appreciated in Her Naked Skin – the recognition that a group of bright, dynamic women can have both purpose and humour in their lives.

Alice F // Posted 4 August 2008 at 3:29 pm

Saw this on Saturday and very disappointed. Clunky script, full of cliched characters and dialogue. A muddle which does not do justice to the politics or personal lives of the women. With such an important and interesting topic, nothing about the play was compelling or engaging and because I could not believe in any of the characters (expect Florence), I could not care enough or be shocked by their appalling treatment. In the end, slow, dull and old fashioned treatment, despite the usual high production standards of the National.

Sarah // Posted 15 August 2008 at 10:39 am

I saw Her Naked Skin this week and thought it rather wonderful. I agree that Eve was a little underdeveloped as a character, but other than that I thought the play was very successful at putting across an impression of suffrage in that year, without oversimplifying or romanticising the characters and their campaign. I was left questioning whether I would have had the courage those women had to take action with “deeds not words”.

The play has also highlighted to me my lack of knowledge in this area. I wonder if anyone can recommend any good books on suffrage in the UK? Disappointingly, a quick look on Amazon has come up primarily with what look like text books…

harpymarx // Posted 15 August 2008 at 11:56 am

I kinda agree with some of what Alice says (overall I did like the play) I did find the script clunky and was also disappointed with the 1-dimensional character of Eve. We see so much of Celia but what about Eve and who she is. She wasn’t as much as a rounded character as Celia. And Celia dominated the story.

Just think it is rather like the whole Suffragette movement where working class women were invisible and their personal histories erased. And the Pankhursts’ take centre stage.

Sarah, some book suggestions: Many of the books I have are about Sylvia Pankhurst such as Sylvia Pankhurst: a maverick life by Shirley Harrison.

If you are looking for general bks on the women’s movement at that period internationally then Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai are very useful reads.

And a v. good autobiographical account of a working class trade unionist woman involved in women’s suffrage is Hannah Mitchell’s The Hard Way Up (tho’ I think it is out of print).

S // Posted 22 August 2008 at 11:39 am

I’m also with Alice F on this one. I went to see Her Naked Skin yesterday with quite high hopes but while I was glad I’d seen it (and for £10 a ticket, not bad!) I didn’t find it particularly inspirational.

There were several points where we are expecting some information or a plot twist and the never came like Celia’s children, when her psychiatrist said about Freud (not only was it not the current opinion at the time-pointed out by my parents, one of whom has a PhD is Psychology, the other is a Professor and between them they are a psychologist, a Psychiatrist and a Psychotherapist) I also assumed he wanted to have sex with her. There is only one scene with him and it is then never brought up again.

I also thought the backdrop of the suffragette movement was useless and rarely touched upon.

What made it worthwhile was Florence who I thought was excellent and the Prison Wardens and nurse, who had nothing to say and therefore used their performance to show us what the characters felt with small gestures.

I also found that it wasn’t very typical of the time particularly the fact that Eve’s hair was continuously down. If she’s a machinist that’s just ridiculous.

kathleen dodds // Posted 3 September 2008 at 8:25 pm

saw this last night and enjoyed it overall, though not without reservation

but first and foremost our NATIONAL theatre should be ashamed of itself for its record in presenting works by female playwrights on its main stage. although my mother in law showed the fight is not over when she said there obviously weren’t good enough female writers….

anyway, the play. I agree that Eve needed more meat (though the actress did a great job with what she had). Sadly the great balance of the first half between history, comic relief and relationships was tilted to mainly relationships in the second half.

but most importantly i felt cheated that the cross-class love story almost completely missed out a huge issue around the suffragists which was that many in the movement wanted equal rights with men (ie only land-owners could vote, so leaving out most of the working class) rather than working for votes for ALL people. The class-angst that surely contributed to Celia breaking off the relationship (though her reasons were frustratingly unclear) could have been much more richly explored, and so have created a more rounded view of the complex and fascinating suffrage movement.

Noami Wiseman // Posted 8 January 2011 at 7:38 am

I think it’s important for audience members to realise that no play can focus on ALL the elements of any movement or period in history. Plays are not novels or text books, and I think it’s a little unfair to comment about aspects of the suffragette movement and Freud that were not examined, because, to look at all those aspects would result in a year long play. There seems to be a misunderstanding of the art form that is theatre. Theatre is not meant to be totally “real”, nor is it documentary.

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