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Theatre Review: Emily - The Making of a Militant Suffragette

9th April 2014

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It’s 101 years since Emily Wilding Davison died underneath the king’s horse at Epsom Derby and in doing so made herself the most famous suffragette of all (barring, perhaps, Mrs Pankhurst.)

Now, a play documenting her life is attempting to cut through the layers of history and give life to the woman behind the rhetoric – Emily: daughter, Oxford graduate, governess and teacher. And, possibly, martyr to the cause of female emancipation.

In the year since the centenary of her death questions have continually been asked about whether she meant to take her own life (if so, why would she have bought a return ticket to London?), but Emily chooses not to address this aspect of her story, rather focusing on the events that led up to 8th June, 1913.

Emily closed its run last night in the supposed home of modern democracy, Parliament’s Portcullis House - which offered some irony, considering the events that the play recounts.

The play features only one character, Emily herself, and is performed with energy and devastating believability by actress Lizzie Crarer. Relying on one actress is a fairly bold move, but there’s no question that it works in this case through placing Emily at the centre of her own story, which is of course the only way it should be.

The lack of supporting actors also added to the ghostlike quality of the production, as Crarer, framed eerily by the shadow of her wide, black Edwardian hat against the Portcullis House wall, takes us on a journey through Emily’s final years – encountering numerous people (police officers, fellow suffragettes), none of whom are present on stage but all of whom we believe in despite their lack of physical presence.

Crarer’s physicality adds to the horror of Emily’s ordeal – static on a chair whilst being force fed under the Cat and Mouse Act, we genuinely believe that police officers are holding her down, forcing a feeding tube into her throat. It is a testament to Crarer’s immense talent that she makes us believe in these scenes, whilst not requiring other cast members to support her performance in any way at all. The sparse set (props consist of one suitcase, a chair and a rope) reinforces the fact that we are relying on Crarer entirely.

If we are to criticise Ros Connelly and Kath Burlinsons’ production, we could say that it might have benefited from more scenes documenting Emily’s life before she was a suffragette. Although the moments in which she is force fed in prison are the play’s most powerful, Emily could perhaps have taken a closer look at her early life, pre-militancy. She seems to go from university student to 36-year-old suffragette (frequently detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure) with no time taken in between to establish the motivations behind her actions. If more foregrounding was included, Emily could have easily got away with being longer than its 70 minutes.  

Having said this, the high energy and fast pace of the play is one of its strengths, and it does reflect a life lived with vigour, and without any subjection to a status quo that its protagonist strongly believed was unjust.

A successful re-evaluation of the life of one of one of the last century’s most controversial women? Definitely.

Emily - Making of a Militant Suffragette was produced by The Production Exchange.

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