Salisbury Playhouse is marking the centenary of the Suffragette movement with the regional premiere of a Wiltshire Creative Production of Her Naked Skin by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Highly praised when it was originally presented at The National Theatre in 2008, this is an epic story of the Suffragette Movement in the early part of the 20th century involving years of protest and actions, that today would be classed as terrorist acts, by a group of committed women who were determined to obtain the vote. It’s hard to imagine such a time when women were denied this most basic of rights in a democracy. This play does not start and stop on this subject matter though; it goes much further with a sub-plot that deals with the taboo at that time of love between two women, compounded by them being from different social classes. With this play Rebecca Lenkiewicz created a thought provoking drama that is set within an historical context, but one which has the potential to resonate with the lives of women today.
Salisbury Playhouse Artistic Director Gareth Machin directs this production and he has delivered a powerful and empathetic reinterpretation of this important play. However, this production rightly avoids being sentimental, nor does it glorify the Suffragette Movement’s activities; but it does confirm their courage and determination despite the dehumanising conditions of Edwardian prisons, with vivid scenes of women being force fed when on hunger strike.
Even before the start of the play the audience is greeted by an impressive yet imposing set, featuring a backdrop of symbolic high prison walls with shattered glass windows – which remains in position throughout the performance and is augmented by constantly changing sets on the main stage, with a film screen showing contemporaneous newsreel at the beginning and towards the end of the play. Around the apron of the stage is an intriguing series of pigeon hole boxes displaying mundane everyday items from the period. Often the set is incidental to a play, but this is not so in this case where the set is instrumental in creating a very charged atmosphere and a fast pace for the play. Credit for this goes to Designer Dawn Allsopp, who is also responsible for the authentic period costumes.
Credit is also due to the rest of the creative team for the lighting, sound and music which were all perfectly synchronised and greatly contributed to making this a highly polished production.
The main character is Lady Celia Cain, played superbly by Abigail Cruttenden, a leading figure in the Suffragette Movement who is frequently imprisoned owing to her activities and, unsurprisingly, who is increasingly at odds with her lawyer husband. Their marriage is falling apart and Lady Celia is seeking more from life. Inside the prison she meets a young seamstress, Eve Douglas, convincingly played by Lorna Fitzgerald, who is a fellow Suffragette; and they fall in love. A love that is doomed from the outset. From here the audience is conveyed through the upper classes of society to Holloway Prison and riots in London as this passionate relationship develops and eventually ends. The emotional intimacies of a forbidden relationship between two strong yet ultimately vulnerable people are portrayed with great sensitivity.
Lady Celia’s husband, William Cain, is played by Robert Hands whose performance is first rate; as are the performances of Ewen Cummins, who has several significant parts, and Jane How, who plays Florence Boorman, also an aristocratic Suffragette. But it would be a complete injustice for me to ignore the top calibre and flawless performances of the other members of the main cast, who are all highly accomplished actors.
Mention must also be made of the community cast of 20 women, who perform seamlessly alongside the professional actors, and who give rousing renditions of the Suffragette anthem “The March of the Women”
Her Naked Skin is an engaging and thought-provoking play full of drama and passion; and I would encourage you to see this production if you can while it is at Salisbury Playhouse until Saturday 20 October. The age guidance for this production is 14+ as it contains scenes that some may find disturbing.