I co-wrote the book with the brilliant Rachael Lennon. Our foreword was by Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project. The book is based on research I did as academic lead on the Trust’s Women and Power project for 2018.
Here’s some blurb:
Celebrating a year of ‘Women & Power’ programmes throughout the Trust, this book explores the roles of National Trust places in the women’s suffrage movement, through the people who lived and worked in them – from the Midlands kitchen-maid turned suffragette arsonist to the aristocratic dynasties split by a daughter’s campaigning. As well as offering a broad history of the Suffrage movement, readers will discover some of the debates heard in the drawing rooms, kitchens and bedrooms of National Trust places as the country fought over whether, and how, a woman might have a voice in public life. We continue to see the footprints of this intensely political argument in the places and collections cared for by the Trust across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Working on this book was a joy, and the end result is – thanks to the Trust’s art researchers, and our great editor, Claire Masset – a beautiful thing.
Read the book? Visited a National Trust property alongside it? Thrilled or outraged about the amount of suffrage and feminist history on display? Let me know.
Today, I was back with the cast and crew for Primavera’s production of The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith, Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1895 play about the relationship between a radical female demagogue, and the young MP who abandons his wife and career for her. Living as political comrades and lovers in Venice, Agnes Ebbsmith and Lucas Cleeve are visited by his rakehell uncle, the Duke of St Olpherts, who plays the very longest of games in attempting to neutralise Agnes’s influence over her lover, and return Lucas to his wife.
Writing that summary caused me great pain, because re-reading the text and working with the company has reminded me what an ambiguous, complicated and wonderful play it is. It’s also one that I find incredibly sad (which is somewhat unfair, given that I laughed out loud frequently during the run I watched). As well as the standard historical advice bit (pockets! Wedding rings! What is Dr Kirke doing in Venice?), I also gave notes to a cast for the first time in years, which was a daunting but enjoyable– and also one that reminded me how illegible my note-taking is, during a run. I should say that I only gave notes at the behest of Abbey Wright, the marvellous director who has cast the production incredibly cleverly (full disclaimer: she’s an Orielensis and from Warwickshire, although I didn’t know either of these facts when I took the job. Disclaimer son of disclaimer: also just discovered she directed the 2012 run of Bitch Boxer, which I saw in 2013). In particular, her casting resists the temptation (and I think thereby doing a rather better job than Pinero’s original text might have done) to turn the supporting female roles – Gertrude, a young widow from Yorkshire, and Sybil, the MP’s aristocratic wife – into mere foils. Julia Goulding and Sarah Madigan are as strong and arresting as the eponymous lead.
Primavera’s production is the first since 1895, which is remarkable given that The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (his 1893 work, to which this was the career sequel) is done fairly regularly – and that this, in all its ambiguity and obsessive negotiation of gender and class, is actually a great play for today.
The Duke of St Olpherts reminds me of those better known fin-de-siècle flaneurs, Lord Henry Wootton, Lord Darlington and Lord Goring. He’s actually more dangerous and more interesting than all three. Although patently attracted to Agnes (and not pace Gladstone, “in the missionary spirit) and a lifelong rakehell, he doesn’t have an emotional crisis and offer her his hand (Darlington), or preach aesthetic philosophy (Wootton), or offer witty salvation to the hero, as Goring does to Lord Chiltern, Wilde’s version of the compromised “coming man”. Thackeray called Vanity Fair “a novel without a hero” and this is a play without a hero – Lucas Cleeve isn’t Robert Chiltern. But although Olpherts isn’t Wootton, he is Wildean. Responding to Agnes’s frankly splendid account of his outrageous and enterprising past, St Olpherts declares “I detected the tendency of the age”. This reminded me of what Wilde wrote in his prison his prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas (which, although subsequently titled De Profundis, George Bernard Shaw saw as Wilde in excelsis). Comparing himself to Lord Byron (actually a far better role model for St Olpherts than Wilde), Wilde wrote ‘I was a man who stood in symbolic relation to […] my age”. St Olpherts stands in symbolic relation to Agnes, to Lucas, and to all of monied, dissolute fin-de-siècle society. Agnes calls him a torturer; at times he seems like a natural Pandarus forced into precisely the opposite role. There are also moments when he’s the most shocking character in the play.
He’s also, physically, the sickest person in a play that’s overwhelmingly about sickness – what it means to be healthy, unnatural, or mad. Anyone interested in health, class, or gender should see this play. Between 1898 and 1918, the trades union movements grew especially fast, and the political rhetoric Pinero gives the working-class Agnes anticipates much of the language of the suffrage and socialist movements. But back to sickness. In a tiny cast of characters, there are two doctors, and two nurses: Agnes is professional, and Gertrude has helped with nursing Lucas because of her devotion to her (Amos, it seems, may have made a third nurse). Lucas has been recently violently unwell, although it’s unclear whether his troubles are more mental or physical. Gertrude has terrible bouts of depression and has experienced the deaths of husband, lover, and child. Agnes faints and is attended by Kirke in the course of the play; we subsequently see her with a burned and bandaged hand. “Mad Agnes” also discusses the extent of the misery and privation she’s suffered in the past – until her “bones were through [her] skin”. The original, in fact the only other Mrs Ebbsmith was Mrs Patrick Campbell, who in 1895 was considered horribly thin. Sadly, today her physique is the default and pinnacle for film acting, although theatre remains (mercifully) more diverse. It’s also a play in which characters desperately try to alleviate each other’s suffering, with Amos and Gertrude ultimately presenting spiritual healing as Agnes’s only possibility of an effective “cure”.
I’m so glad I was able to be involved with Primavera, and I can’t wait to see the full show: today’s run was a joy. It was also my first visit to the Jerwood Space, via Jubilee line chaos, an emergency cab dash, and a fascinating chat to the driver about The Knowledge (3 years! full time! 400 routes to memorise). These are rambling notes, but I’m trying to make the blog more active and not let the perfect (eloquent) be the enemy of the good (published).
Finally, I hope my UK readers aren’t suffering too badly from the smog. My eyes are itching horribly and London today was so polluted that, in comparison, the half-a-dozen trees beside the Tate as I walked up to Blackfriars smelled like a verdant meadow. And then my journey back to Oxford took 90 minutes longer than expected, thanks to a diversion. I feel I could now win Mastermind with my specialist subject as the backstreets of West Wycombe.
On Wednesday, I saw Bitch Boxer at the Soho Theatre; a one-hour, one-woman play written and performed by Charlotte Josephine. Having seen Josephine in Julius Caesarearlier this year, I was excited to see her own work – and, to be honest, I’m a bit in love with the Soho Theatre and their apparent directorial policy of ‘stage work that Sophie wants to see, and don’t charge her more than a tenner for doing so’. For me, Bitch Boxer was an incredibly inspiring, salutary and encouraging piece of theatre. Alongside my fascination with the play’s story and characters, I was delighted to see such a young writer and performer performing with such skill and immediacy – and being so warmly received.
Bitch Boxer is the story of Chloe, a young working-class boxer from Leytonstone, East London, who is gearing up for her final qualifying fight before the London Olympics; the first Olympics in which women could box. I am a bespectacled, myopic, borderline-dyspraxic, undersized and severely uncoordinated scrap of laziness, and I came out of Bitch Boxer wanting to box. The play’s exposition of the sport’s technical side is unexpectedly fascinating. I also found Bitch Boxer a more complex and nuanced exploration of boxing than On It, Tony Pitts’s recent Afternoon Play about the late Liam Jones, a young drug addict who attempted to conquer his addictions via boxing. Both plays tell powerful stories of pain and loss, but Bitch Boxer gets far further beyond the predictable narrative of boxing-as-emotional-salvation. Not only does Chloe use boxing to express and control her adolescent anger, but training and fighting give her an identity that reorders and reorients the rest of her life. Bitch Boxer‘s most emotionally articulate scene is Chloe’s recognition that her opponent in the ring is as determined, excited, frightened and committed as herself. This gives the boxer a compassion and respect for the process of fighting that makes the final confrontation moving, but not mawkish.
I said that Josephine was warmly received by her audience, and the vast majority of the reviews have also been excellent. However, one critic has objected in misogynist – and also misspelt – terms that Charlotte Josephine’s body is not plausibly that of a boxer, and that this physical dissonance damages the integrity and believability of the piece. That is an extremely polite paraphrase of what this lone lunatic actually came out with, and I’m not going to link to the review, because, well, don’t feed the trolls.
Firstly, Charlotte Josephine’s body is very plausibly that of a boxer. Secondly, and not to position myself as the tiny Cassandra of critical misogyny, but after watching Bitch Boxer, I was expecting to find that this kind of play would draw this kind of criticism. Women cannot put their bodies out in public looking like Charlotte Josephine looks, without attractive derisive male comment. Josephine looks fit and strong, in a way that’s toned but which connotes substance, strength and stamina, rather than the ultra-tiny LA yoga bod that’s the mainstream default and pinnacle of the sporty female body. She looks admirably powerful. It’s not really surprising that a woman daring to be visibly sporty, healthy and herself causes controversy: for God’s sake, look at what happened to Rebecca Adlington and Jessica Ennis.
I sat there watching Josephine and I thought how brave she was not to be in Sweaty Betty pinkified sports gear, but instead to look like a boxer, in Lonsdale shorts, black ankle socks and an ordinary vest; all of them sweat-soaked, as the intensely physical piece progressed. And then I wondered what the hell had happened to society, and to my brain, that I found it brave for a young woman to dress as her character without concessions to sexiness, and that I couldn’t ever remember seeing an actress visibly sweat. In order to bring out the troll in one theatrical critic, all Charlotte Josephine had to do was be visible as a professional and as an artist. Quite often, that is all we have to do, as women, to infuriate misogynists: just show up. I encourage you to show up at Bitch Boxer, as soon as you can.
A Snuff Box Theatre production, Bitch Boxer runs at about 65 minutes, includes Eminem karaoke, bereavement, a confrontation with a savage dog, and a controversial pair of Nikes. With Julius Caesar only last month, I’m suddenly incredibly hopeful about the future of feminist theatre.
Long-time readers will know that Harriet Walter is not irrelevant to my interests. I have purchased a certain number of theatre tickets in order to see her perform. I have a certain degree of familiarity with her first book, Other People’s Shoes. She was central to Clamorous Voices, the book after which this blog was named, and she appears in my thesis more than is seemly or subtle for a work that’s supposedly about the nineteenth century. I think she’s the most perfect actress of her generation, I hope to God I’m never called upon to be articulate in her presence, and I have still not forgiven the Queen for making Helen Mirren a Dame first.
For these reasons, I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to review Julius Caesar. Not in a balanced way, or even a way that manages to eschew capital letters and superlatives. Harriet Walter plays Brutus, which automatically precludes all chance of a review that doesn’t devolve into my myriad feelings and/or an anecdote about the time my friend Charlie and I (both then aged sixteen) spent half an hour in a biting wind outside the old RST, so that Walter could sign our programmes for (I think) The Hollow Crown.*
Frances Barber plays Julius Caesar. This is also bad news for my sang-froid. Walter may have played Fanny Dashwood, Lady Macbeth, and Harriet Vane, but Barber played the Bolter and the first Shakespearean heroine I ever saw. She was an Edwardian Viola in the snowy Twelfth Night that may not be as good as I remember it, but the fact is that my six-year-old self fell simultaneously in love with her and Anton Lesser. As Feste, Lesser had ringlets and eyeliner; Barber had a waistcoat. I didn’t know which one I more wanted to be.
So, then, when I found myself in the front row of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse, watching Barber, Walter, and a monstrous regiment of miraculous women turn Julius Caesar into a mashup of Shakespeare, Sarah Kane, Bad Girls, Chicago and Our Country’s Good, I asked myself a question. Am I going to review this production in a careful, analytical, balanced manner, soberly locating the play in its aesthetic, historical and dramaturgical contexts? Shall I make solemn interrogation of the directorial choices, and cast a cool eye over the production’s lasting influence, and longevity? If you should never meet your idols, you probably shouldn’t review them, either.
This is not a production to be solemn or cautious about. This is a production which demands you enter its world; a women’s prison wing, where the inmates are performing – and in some cases living – Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Until now, Julius Caesar is a play I’ve actually preferred to read rather than see, which is a) anathema to everything else I feel about Shakespeare, and b) a direct result of the play having almost no women, and going on about war for too long.
This production’s play-within-a-play conceit interrupts Shakespeare’s action with the inevitabilities of the prison day. Med checks and lockdowns tear up the script, daring to put modern-day swearing next to Roman rhetoric. But deliberately breaking this suspension of disbelief only makes the Shakespeare more real, as the play becomes increasingly important to the prisoners, racing to complete their performance before they’re returned to their cells.
At its quietest – as when Brutus, played with ravaged elegance by Walter, tells Jenny Jules (a highly flammable young Cassius, all-consuming as the military leader) of Portia’s death – the Donmar production is tender, understated and mesmeric. In exhilarating contrast, the play’s battles become a cross between a riot and a 90s video nasty, with chaotic sequences of lights, drums, and drugged-out dancing.
It’s so rare to see a show that feels so dynamic and experimental, headed by actors who also speak verse with virtuosic ease. Walter and Barber are, as expected, marvellous. Barber, in particular, can slide from sublime poetry to sounding like the Missing Mitchell Sister without missing a single Shakespearian beat. Two of the supporting cast, Carrie Rock (Soothsayer) and Jen Joseph (Trebonius) are alumnae of Clean Break theatre company. Clean Break exists both to stage the experiences of imprisoned women (via award-winning plays), and empower women who are at risk of offending, or who already have experience of the criminal justice system, via theatre-based educational courses.
Both Rock and Joseph gave excellent performances; Rock’s disturbed, too-knowing child has stayed in my mind ever since. Both Rock and Joseph speak blank verse as though it’s not only instinctive, but imperative; that their characters cannot and must not be expressed in any other way. The total absence of anything unnatural – stagey hangups, theatrical tics – meant that they never seemed to be acting. Ironically, Joseph’s overwhelmingly warm stage presence (tell me the name of Trebonius in any production you’ve ever seen) also meant that I assumed I was watching someone who was already very famous, as opposed to someone who merely deserved to be.
The joy ofsingle-sex Shakespeare lies in creating amazing and unanticipated combinations of actors and roles. Without cross-casting, Cush Jumbo’s performance as Mark Antony would never have existed; Jen Joseph would have been no more likely to play Trebonius than Mark Rylance was to play Olivia.
But one of the most challenging and unsettling things about all-female Shakespeare is that it tips the audience into a world where femininity, not masculinity is the default setting. All-male Shakespeare has the simultaneous advantages of historical justification and novelty. Notions of authenticity and original practice legitimise all-male productions, offering us a glimpse of a history that’s sufficiently distant to make the all-male theatrical event unusual. All-male Shakespeare is affirmed and celebrated where other aspects of “original” performance – the cavalier addition of togas to Elizabethan dress, for example – are largely discarded; nor has the modern Globe begun casting pre-pubescent Juliets. I’m not disparaging any of this; productions like Mark Rylance’s Richard II make theatre far richer. Sometimes the consequences veer towards pantomime, as when the (sorely-missed) Peter Shorey’s Duchess of York harangued Liam Brennan’s Henry IV in the BBC’s 2003 broadcast of Rylance’s Globe show. But that merely shows how Shakespeare thrives on the broadest comedy – else why send Falstaff into a laundry basket, then change him to the Fat Woman of Brentford?
The history of all-female Shakespeare, meanwhile, is the histories of girls’ schools and women’s colleges; organisations like the Mothers’ Union and the Women’s Institute; women’s prisons, and private reading circles from the eighteenth- to the twenty-first century. These may not be traditional arenas for academic attention, but they are – I hope – attracting more and more work from scholars. I’d love to know about Shakespeare as read and performed by all kinds of female groups: Shakespeare by and for landgirls, Shakespeare by nuns (did he make it into convents, or only convent schools?), Shakespeare in nursing schools (back when nursing was a female profession). The final chapter of my thesis is about Shakespeare and the suffragettes – the chapter of my thesis that most excited me, and one which (happily) other people seem to find exciting as well – but I’d love to know more about different, all-female groups. Tangentially, I really regret not seeing the RSC’s partially cross-cast King John last year, because it might have addressed my unease regarding partially cross-cast Shakespeares; I’ve yet to see one that seemed truly successful.
On Monday, the Donmar will release its last Barclays Front Row tickets for the run. While wary of schemes that force people to jump through hoops to get affordable tickets, Barclays Front Row is infinitely better than day-tickets, London-only tickets, or ostensibly benevolent schemes that use young theatregoers to fill unsellable seats. I hope everyone reading this gets a ticket. I hope I’m successful for a second time. If we’re there together, say hello. I really loved this production; I hope you get a chance to do so.**
*Charlie and I could also give a deeply moving rendition of the final seconds of Greg Doran’s The Taming of the Shrew, with both of us simultaneously playing bothAlexandra Gilbreath and Jasper Britton at the moment of “My hand is ready; may it do him ease”. I want you to really imagine two schoolgirls, each one of whom is trying to be two Shakespearean actors at once (while providing very loud commentary on how brilliant they were). Charlie is now a professional actress (in fact she’s Charlie Ryall), but sticks to being one person at a time.
* please note that in Week 8, lecture will take place in Lecture Theatre 2.
Building on the success of last year’s Before Oscar lecture series, we’re back in 2013 – now with added Emma Smith and Naomi Wolf. I hope to see many of you there (you may have noticed that I’m first up, this coming Wednesday…).
I have promised myself I will NOT BLOG until this chapter plan is finished, but I did just want to share my – belated – glee at being published with the fabulous feminist website Bad Reputation. I was unable to make their anniversary party in Camden on Oct 7 (having, on Oct 6, hosted a certain amount of wassail myself) but am delighted to call myself a contributor, even on the strength of one article.
To read the article, click here, but in any case, I hope you enjoy this picture of the first big French gay rights protest, which might usefully be subtitled “dear god, French gays are so much cooler/more stylish and generally better than the rest of us”. There’s an intensity of leather and cheekbone to which one can only aspire.
Before I head back to Cymbeline and my dead Shakespearean girlfriends, however, here are three BadRep posts for your consideration:
Is ‘Chav’ A Feminist Issue? by Rhian Jones (clue: yes, and there’s some brilliant stuff on the intersections between feminism and class, aka the dynamic which it really pains many feminists of all colours, creeds, and variations of middle-class experience to acknowledge… /personal-rent-a-rant)
Sarah Daniels was born in 1956, in London. Her Orlando profile describes how, as a secondary school student, she
“hated school” and made a habit of sitting at the back of the class, not listening. She left at eighteen for work. At school she “didn’t even like drama.” Studying Shakespeare‘s Henry V for O level English was dominated by reading the play aloud and therefore, for her, anxiety about pronouncing the words right. She was astonished to discover that she enjoyed the play when she saw it in the theatre.
She was lastingly impressed by an incident at her school when a boy raped a girl at knife-point. The boy was removed to a borstal or school for young offenders, but the headmaster then addressed the whole school to tell them that in cases of rape the blame was shared equally by both parties.
Daniels’s playwriting career took off after she was able to spend a year as the writer-in-residence of Sheffield University’s English department. Her plays have been performed at theatres including the Royal Court and the National Theatre, and Daniels is also on the board of directors for Clean Break Theatre (trans: she is awesome beyond words). Her partner of many years, and civil partner, was the activist and schools inspector Claire Walton, who died in 2009.
Plays 1 comprises Sarah Daniels’s first six plays: Ripen Our Darkness, Ma’s Flesh is Grass, Masterpieces, The Devil’s Gateway, Neaptide and Byrthrite.
So far I’ve read Ripen Our Darkness (1981) and Masterpieces (1983). My ability to consume feminist 80s playwriting knows almost no bounds. Ripen Our Darkness is about marriage, mental illness and misery in the Anglican church; a bolder precursor to Alan Bennett’s Bed Among The Lentils, which followed in 1987 and also depicts a vicar’s wife in crisis. Daniels’s protagonist doesn’t receive even temporary redemption or escape.
Daniels’s next play, Masterpieces is about pornography, misogyny and mental illness. The roles across both plays are predominantly female, and, at its best, the writing is heart-stopping, combative and clear. However, Ripen Our Darkness is weakest and most uneven in its handling of the working-class lesbian Julie, who might have sounded cliched in her speech back in 1981. Yet, for a play that’s 30 years old, Ripen Our Darkness often strikes heart & intellect simultaneously: moreover, Hilary, the most obviously working-class woman in Masterpieces, is far more subtly characterised than Julie. Hilary, a single mother and sex worker, readily accepts a legitimate day job from a male friend of her social worker. The scene in which Hilary’s boss, Ron, begins to seduce and harass her is both timeless and excruciating, as are the unsympathetic responses of the other characters.
Daniels’s unabashedly anti-pornographic stance in Masterpieces has (regrettably) become unfashionable in contemporary feminism, but her emotionally direct style anticipates writers like Laurie Penny. I wish I could see ways of staging her plays for student audiences, but at the moment I’m unconvinced. For one thing, Oxford plays with all-female casts tend to do badly unless they’re Playhouse Creatures or The House of Bernarda Alba (both of which I love), or, at best, attract tedious expanses of critical shock at the goshness and novelty of a play without any boys (on second thoughts, maybe Daniels isn’t dated at all).
As texts, Daniels’s plays read wonderfully. I’m, um, apprehensive about the last in the collection, which is ominously titled Byrthrite and which I suspect of glorying in wom(y)nly gore, but I’m currently halfway through Neaptides (1986) and desperate to know what happens.
If I blink at the scene in Neaptides where Claire tells daughter Poppy a myth-cum-fairy-story about the goddess Persephone’s masturbation, I’m grateful that Daniels wrote in ways that are so combative, unembarrassed, and unashamed. The radical feminists of the 1980s cut swathes through misogyny and chauvinism, so that twenty-first-century girls like me could, if they chose, be embarrassed and Anglican and gay all at once, and in (relative) peace. In Daniels’s excellent first collection, I’m glad to find myself another feminist, literary foremother, and to take a look at another bit of feminism’s theatrical past.