Set at the peak of the women’s suffragist movement, Rebecca Lenkiewicz‘s Her Naked Skin is the first original work by a living female writer to be staged in the National’s Olivier Theatre.
Beginning with Emily Davison’s fatal dash under the hooves of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby, a pivotal moment in the path towards female emancipation in the UK, it explores a period where women had to fight to give themselves a voice and the vote and to not simply be dismissed as “a lunatic fringe of frigid women who crave attention” (as one politician labels them while they wait to hear whether Davison will live or die).
Lesley Manville plays Lady Celia Cain, a writer we are told, though she doesn’t appear to do a lot of writing. Instead she spends her days smashing windows and scorching golf courses, an advocate of Christabel Pankhurst’s policy of Deeds Not Words. As a result she is frequently incarcerated in Holloway Prison. Once there she and many of the other inmates protest against their imprisonment by hunger striking. The prison authorities respond by holding the women down, gagging them and force feeding them. There is a wonderfully unsettling moment of foreshadowing in an early scene where a funnel and length of tubing sit ominously on a desk while the prison doctor discusses this process. Only later do we see how truly barbaric this feeding is, when it is enacted in what is a horrifying scene that will linger in the memory.
Whilst in Holloway, Lady Celia meets Eve (“as in the garden”) Douglas, a young seamstress and, despite their different backgrounds, the women are drawn together, their relationship quickly becoming sexual. Outside they continue to see each other, snatching kisses where they can and spending long mornings cocooned together in Eve’s Limehouse flat. But social pressure and their differing expectations force them apart.
Manville is quite glorious in what could have been a rather unlikeable part. Celia can be rather a self-regarding and, indeed, selfish character, a woman who is at times blind to the depth of emotion that others feel for her. The passion in her marriage to her childhood sweetheart, a man she has known most of her life, has faded, and it is partly this, one feels, that has made her throw herself so fully into the women’s movement. Lenkiewicz fortunately is good at ambiguity, and this is especially true of the character of Celia’s husband William. He is not a brute, far from it, merely a man frustrated by his inability to understand his wife, a man who has already come to terms with the fact he is not enough for her.
Whilst Lenkiewicz manages to avoid turning the play into too overt a history lesson, the central relationship between Celia and Eve is never quite as interesting as the era being evoked. It is scenes of the women learning to shoot in Epping Forest, or protesting (their Deeds Not Words banner held aloft) in London parks that leave the greatest impression and, of course, the prison scenes. The bulk of the play takes place in Holloway itself, with Rob Howell’s striking cage-like set dominating the Olivier stage.
Howard Davies’ production is quite bitty at times, with lots of short scenes, and the constant swinging into view of the prison set became a little repetitive despite the atmospheric music used to underscore these scene changes. The final photo-montage also seems a rather obvious way of ending things, as if Lenkiewicz didn’t quite trust her moving, low-key epilogue, with war imminent, to be enough.
The cast are, however, all on excellent form. Alongside Manville’s stand-out performance, the blossom-cheeked and strikingly pretty Jemima Rooper brings a comparable sense of strength to the younger Eve, subtly reminding the audience that, as a working class protestor, she has more to lose, in every sense, than Celia. Susan Engel is also quite wonderful as protest-hardened Florence Boorman, who, when asked her occupation, declares proudly and defiantly: “suffragist.” Adrian Rawlins is also excellent as the conflicted William Cain, still drawn to his wife, yet also both baffled by her and frightened for her.
Yet despite the superb performances and the strong sense of period evoked, the production didn’t quite come together. Certain moments glowed dazzled and I will not forget that force feeding scene for a long time to come, but the pacing felt jerky and the central relationship, which should have been the emotional heart of the piece, was curiously unmoving.
Her Naked Skin, part of the Travelex 10 season, is at the National Theatre until 24 September 2008