Mikron Theatre’s new show “Revolting Women” is a contribution to the commemorations of the extension of the vote to all men and a small group of middle-class women in 1918. Centre stage is the radical Pankhurst Sylvia who broke with her mother and sister to promote the cause of working class women and men and universal suffrage.
The play concentrates on the period from 1911 to 1918. Sylvia moves to the East End of London and sets up the East End Federation of the WSPU in a shop in Bow, one of the poorest areas but an area that had a militant working class and was close to the House of Commons so that they could easily demonstrate there.
Sylvia (played by Daisy Ann Fletcher) was the youngest Pankhurst who, unlike her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel, believed that it was working class women who should be centre to the struggle for the vote and for a new, more equal society. The play captures the tension between the Pankhursts through a series of letters to Sylvia written by Christabel who had fled to Paris to avoid imprisonment from where she issued dictats.
Sylvia finds comradeship with local woman Lettie (Rosamund Hine) and we are taken through one of the most intense parts of the suffrage campaign. It’s a time when the government, under siege by women prepared to go to prison for their rights, uses forced feeding and then the “Cat and Mouse Act” to wear the women down. I have to say the song used in this part “Tell me a tale Miss Wardress” seems unbelievable and totally inappropriate.
Mikron is not a political theatre company – most of their shows are happy stories ranging from the chocolate industry to the Women’s Institute – and they have a deserved reputation for good stories told through great songs and music.
“Revolting Women” is no exception, but it is also a serious story and one that does not end well for the main protagonist Sylvia. Trying to keep the audience involved through upbeat songs and comic moments , even when the storyline was the opposite, for me undermines some of the real history of this period. One example of this was the use of a male actor (James McLean) playing Christabel in the background as Sylvia reads her sister’s increasingly threatening letters.
It is not a story that ends happily either, as Sylvia was devastated in 1918 when the movement is split, and her mother and Christabel welcomes a new franchise bill that only gives a small number of propertied women the vote. Her response was “Saddened and oppressed by the great world tragedy, by the multiplying graves of men and the broken hearts of women, we hold aloof from such rejoicings. They stride with a hollow and unreal sound upon our consciousness.” (Workers’ Dreadnought, 16 February 1918)
Again, Mikron is trying to hard to give us a happy ending, concentrating on the 17 women standing for election in 1918, including Christabel. But it was Sylvia’s comrade Irish revolutionary Constance Markievicz who was the first woman to be elected to Parliament. Strangely this is not mentioned.
“Revolting Women” is an excellent production and at a time when a present day Pankhurst (great granddaughter Helen) is prepared to line herself up with Tory Prime Minister Theresa May, the story of socialist Sylvia and the role of working class women in the suffrage campaign is a worthwhile story to tell.
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