Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Votes For Women’, which is at the New Vic in Newcastle Under Lyme until Saturday 24th of March.
What is so riveting about this play is that it was written at the time.
We’ve recently been awash with retrospectives; but Elizabeth Robins wrote ‘Votes For Women’ in 1907, just as the polite, passive Suffragists were being usurped by the more angry, activist Suffragettes. So, she was in the thick of the new spirit sweeping the land and put in her play what she saw and heard going on around her; which gives the whole piece a remarkable freshness.
But she was also amazingly prescient.
In her play, Geoffrey Stoner MP is worried about his seat and wondering how his Tories can beat the dominant Liberals at the forthcoming general election. What he needs is a lot more Tory voters. And which section of society is more ‘conservative’ than women with property? If only they were allowed to vote.
Eleven years later, in 1918, that is exactly what happened. Political reform gave monied woman The Vote – and the Tories won the biggest majority in The House. So, emancipation was all a fix…. and Elizabeth Robins saw it coming!
Apart from being politically astute, Robins had a track record in bringing ‘strong women’ to the stage; giving Ibsen’s heroines their British debuts. In ‘Votes for Woman’ she puts reforming pioneers such as Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst in the limelight – placing their stirring speeches directly before us – and allowing us to see the consequences first hand.
Her play is ‘of its time’ in other ways too – particularly in its construction. Theresa Heskins’ absorbing adaptation doesn’t worry about the substantial length of successive scenes. And rightly so. This is a play that breathes deep.
There is a cosy, casual Oscar Wilde-like garden gatherings where the good and the great exchange views (with some wit) on the pros and cons of equality for woman and, revealing their ingrained prejudices, shoot themselves in the foot. And there is a lengthy Trafalgar Square rally, with a succession of stirring speeches. The, by now, familiar arguments are rehearsed once more … but ‘in the moment’, using the genuine language of the day.
‘A woman’s place is in the home. Give them the vote and they’ll start reading the newspapers. And (obviously) all Suffrage woman are dowdy and dull’.
It’s when the play breaks down into more private, personal exchanges that the dramatic tension soars. Mr Stoner has a dark secret he’d quite like to keep from the young female admirer he has driven down from London to see … till a wronged, old flame takes to the centre-stage soap box and the young girl’s head is turned in more ways than one. There follows a long sitting-room scene; a beautifully written transition from accusation to reconciliation in which, in a climactic summersault, heart-felt necessity leads to far-reaching political reform.
The 11-strong ensemble (doubled by a throng of community players) all act their socks off as if they actually believe they are there, at the forefront of historic change….whether they are adamantly in favour (“the helplessness of women is the greatest evil in the world”) or they deride it (“they just need a good man”).
The New Vic should be applauded for unearthing this historic treasure. One of my most chilling theatrical moments pops up from time to time whilst watching 1930s plays; when some bright young man says “do you think there will be a war?” and something stirs in my heart. This is the female equivalent, set twenty years earlier. This play never palls. The fact that we know the outcome (which Robins didn’t) makes the getting there all the more compelling.
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Photo : Mark Douet