Her Naked Skin

Posted on: 29 August 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

The politics of the Suffragette movement mix with individual passions in this explosive new drama.

Passion and politics make a combustible mix in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s absorbing new work Her Naked Skin which marks the first new play by a female dramatist to be staged by the National Theatre in one of its main houses (Olivier auditorium).

The place is London, the year 1913.  Militancy in the Suffragette Movement is at its height.  Thousands of women of all classes serve time in Holloway Prison in their fight to gain the vote.

Amongst them is Lady Celia Cain who feels trapped by both the restrictive policies of the day and the shackles of a frustrating, loveless marriage.  Inside she meets a young seamstress, Eve Douglas, and her life spirals into an erotic but dangerous chaos.

The play opens with archive film footage of Emily Davison’s sacrificial gesture in throwing herself in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Derby. This is followed by a discussion of the incident by the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, and other parliamentarians which reveal the male political intransigence over female emancipation.

Over a series of swiftly moving scenes the drama unfolds, switching between the daily humiliations endured by the Suffragettes in prison - one of the most disturbing scenes ever mounted on the London stage shows the rebellious Eve being forcibly fed with a tube attached to her nostrils - and the more intimate relationships.

Lenkiewicz’s skill here is not only to recapture the triumphs and tribulations of a historic movement in such accurate and realistic detail that you feel you are watching the characters and events of the time suddenly come to life, but the illuminating insight she brings to the individuals caught up in this bitter battle for equality.

The strong feeling of authenticity is heightened by Rob Howell’s atmospheric set in which a series of interlocking steel frames conjuring up prison cells swing back and forth to remind us of the entrapment experienced by Edwardian women.

Director Howard Davies elicits excellent performances from his top flight NT cast, notably Lesley Manville who, as Celia, marvellously conveys the inherent contradictions of a woman whose vision of sexual and political freedom is comprised by class, Jemima Rooper who brings a combination of sensuality and toughness to the role of her lover Eve, and, above all, Susan Engel as a witty, silver-haired Suffragette who will stop at nothing to further the cause.

This certainly is a production that you will not forget in a hurry and marks another triumph for the National.

By Laurence Green

Plays in repertory until 24th September 2008.

Booking Information

Box office: 0207 452 3000 or: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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