Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s ambitious new play, Her Naked Skin is set in 1913, when the suffragette movement was at its most militant. Women were being imprisoned and hunger-strikers were often violently force-fed.
The play is set in Holloway Prison, and concerns Lady Celia Cain, played by Lesley Manville, a campaigner for women’s rights who forges a relationship with a young seamstress.
As has already been noted, there is something reminiscent of the work of the novelist Sarah Waters in the material, both in the historical sweep of the play and the Sapphic relationship at its centre, a comparison Lenkiewicz finds flattering.
Appropriately, for a play about the advancement of women, Her Naked Skin is also notable for being the first original play by a woman to be staged in the Olivier Theatre, the largest of the three performance spaces at the National. There have been adaptations before Coram Boy was adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson but no original work. To be fair, as Nicholas Hytner, the National’s artistic director has pointed out, it is rare for original plays to be staged in the space as it is, but still it is a milestone, an impressive achievement by any standards. Lenkiewicz says she finds the idea “shocking”, though I’m unclear whether she means that it is shocking that there has never before been an original work staged there by a female writer or that hers is the first. A little of both perhaps. Did she write the play with the Olivier in mind? “No, I originally wrote it for the Cottesloe” This is the smallest of the National’s three theatres, which prompts me to ask whether she thinks women playwrights sometimes shy away from writing the big, sweeping spectacles that suit spaces like the Olivier? Lenkiewicz is quick to refute this, she doesn’t think that women writers limit themselves in this way, does not think gender plays a role at all in this regard.
She has however stated before that she believes feminism has regressed of late and she reiterates that now. There is a growing “obsession with body image” in today’s society, women are increasingly objectified. Given this worrying trajectory, she is pleased that her play will remind people of what the suffragette movement meant, what it achieved, what those women fought against and what they won for future generations. She hopes that young women will see it and take their stories on board. And she is pleased that, as part of the National’s Travelex 10 season, there will be plenty of opportunity for young girls, young women, to see the play.
Lenkiewicz is a striking figure, tall, with eclectic dress sense and intelligent, blue eyes. She is eloquent and thoughtful in her responses but with a hesitant and self questioning quality. Her father is the playwright (“writer” she clarifies, “and poet”) Peter Quint, something that clearly had a bearing on the path her career has taken, though she had no burning ambition to write growing up. She went to school in Plymouth (her step-father is the artist Robert Lenkiewicz) and took a degree in film studies at Kent University. This was followed by a period of travelling and various odd jobs including the stint as a table dancer in Soho that, I suggest, she is probably fed up of being asked about by now. She laughs, shrugs, but opts not to go into details. It is this experience, however, that fed into her debut work Soho A Tale Of Table Dancers, a play written she says as “catharsis” and one that would go on to win a Fringe First at Edinburgh.
She followed this by taking an acting course and has appeared in productions for both the National and RSC. But the need to write stayed with her and she produced a second play The Night Season a moving and amusing tale of Irish family – which, having been championed by the director Howard Davies, was eventually staged at the Cottesloe, winning her the Critics’ Circle most promising playwright award. Now Davies is directing Her Naked Skin, the culmination of a fruitful creative relationship, something Lenkiewicz is clearly excited about. “It’s fascinating watching him work. He’s incredibly precise and detailed whilst facing the raw emotion full on. He has such a clear view of the whole as well as zooming in quite filmically on every detail. And he works wonderfully with actors, with immense respect for their work.”
I ask her to describe her writing process. Lenkiewicz lives in south London, in Borough, and lives alone, which gives her increased freedom to write as and when she pleases. She tries to write most days, though the other associated activities that come with being a successful playwright can eat into her actual writing time. She is most productive in the evenings, she thinks, and while she sees a lot of theatre, she tends to see far less when she’s working on something.
We talk about her influences as a writer and, this time, there is no hesitation, she reels them off, bang, bang, bang: “Pinter, Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, Chekhov.” I ask her what advice she would give to aspiring writers and it is at this point that the Thames we are sitting in a nook in the National Theatre erupts. There is a cacophony of honking outside the window, rather like the mating call of riverboats. (“It’s OK, I think they’re friendly” Lenkiewicz says when I look alarmed). The noise is such that I have to email her later and get her to clarify her response. “If you want to write something just write it” she replies “and your spine and your mind will tell you if it’s any good, just some instinct. “Feedback” is talked about too freely I think these days as if a new play is a pound of offal for inspection. Writing is a very strange and freeing process. If you want to write a play and have it produced, prepare yourself for the ride, loosen your belts and jump like Butch Cassidy and Sundance did into that huge river ravine shouting loud guns at the ready.”
She is currently working on a new play about Harry Harlow, the American psychologist who conducted the famous surrogate mother experiments with rhesus monkeys in the 1960s and is also working on a drama about Marie Stopes, the birth control pioneer. She recently adapted Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People for the Arcola, in a wonderfully rich production starring Greg Hicks. If she had to choose between adapting and writing she says, without pause, that original work would take precedence, but she adds that she finds the adaptation process exhilarating too, a privileged role.
Now she is established as a playwright, does she miss performing, would she ever consider acting again? “Acting was huge highs and lows, I can see why people compare it to a drug or an addiction,” she says, but despite that she would not act again, at least not now, she has lost her confidence in that area, “lost her mojo.” Her experiences as a performer has however enriched and informed the way she writes, allowing her to place a greater trust in actors and what they are capable of. “Watching actors over the years in rehearsal yes it has absolutely bled into my writing. Brilliant actors can do so much with very little so I’ve learnt that spare can be good.”
Her Naked Skin is now in the midst of the rehearsal process (previews begin on 24 July). How does it feel, I ask, to see this thing you have created come to life in this way? The process she describes is an, understandably, emotionally complex one, one both joyous and frustrating and, I suspect, a little unnerving, to see this play you have “lived with for months” grow and change “You want people to understand it as well as you do,” she says and the rehearsal period is part of a learning curve, amazing when all is going well but also a rather fraught at times. But she has faith in the actors, in the “brilliant” Lesley Manville and, of course, in Davies’ direction. I keep thinking “next time I’ll be better at this”, she says, smiling, but it strikes me she’s doing just fine this time around.
Her Naked Skin is part of the Travelex 10 season and runs at the National Theatre from 24 July – 24 September 2008
Read our review of Her Naked Skin here