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“EQUALITY,” replies Vashti Maclachlan, when asked what message she’d like the audience to take away from her new play for Mikron Theatre. “We’re still not there yet and so you’ve got to stand up and keep shouting.”
That message comes across strongly in political satire Revolting Women, which marks the 100th anniversary of female suffrage. Told from the perspective of Sylvia, the less celebrated and most socialist Pankhurst, it makes it clear that only some women got the vote in 1918.
Its open ending leaves space for parallels to be drawn with #MeToo, although the movement’s influence is most apparent in the company's personnel. Mikron, which “tells stories of uniquely British things,” staged suffrage play A Woman’s Place in 1995 and there were suggestions that it should be revived.
But, as artistic director Marianne McNamara explains, “it was written by men in the early 1990s. Life has changed a bit since then and it was important that it had a woman’s voice.”
Revolting Women tells the story of working-class woman Lettie and her relationship with Sylvia Pankhurst. “She went into the East End of London and wanted to involve working class women in the struggle for the vote,” Maclachlan says. “Which is different to what her sister and mother were doing.”
In the play, she creates the East End Federation Of Women and, with help from Lettie, tries to organise a deputation to Parliament. The story follows the journey of the vote and how it’s played out in Parliament with the different Acts.
The character of Lettie, Maclachlan explains, is “an amalgam of various women in the federation. It’s a creative choice you make when you’re juggling with the real story and dealing with historical material. How closely do you stick to the actual facts? As long as you’ve got that truth within the story that you’re telling, then I think that you can play around. Not with the truth but with creating other characters.”
Crafting a 90-minute play which, says McNamara, “an audience needs to love and care about” is one of the many challenges of working with Mikron. The company has a cast of four actor-musicians who must be happy to travel across the country in a narrow boat to perform at community venues.
“I’ll always say to new writers: ‘No lights, no sound effects’,” says McNamara. “Sometimes we have to direct from the waist up because we don’t have a stage. And so you can’t have a scene where somebody lies on the floor. You can’t have people sitting down in Mikron plays.”
“You can’t be too naturalistic,” Maclachlan adds. “Everything’s got to be slightly heightened.”
These limitations mean that actors play multiple characters that are fully fleshed while being “broad brush strokes as well.” This lends Revolting Women a jaunty and at times cartoonish tone, with the actors swapping between hat-wearing suffragettes and finger-wagging politicians.
Yet it doesn’t step away from the harsh realities of the time, detailing the divisions within Parliament as well as within the women’s movement that saw Sylvia slowly accept the need for militancy. Some of these themes are explored in Kieran Buckeridge’s music hall songs such as Tell Me A Tale Miss Wardress, a graphic account of force-feeding.
Maclachlan wrote the lyrics to the songs, but she stresses the importance of the creative relationship she has had with the composer — “I learned a lot from him” — and they’re working together again on a play about the Wrens, the women's branch of the royal navy, due to tour next year.
It’s another women-centric story that in some ways acknowledges just how far-reaching the achievements of the suffragettes have been. As McNamara says, “Our lives are better because of those women. Its means that we're sitting here as the artistic director of a company, as a writer of a play and as a journalist doing 'men’s jobs.'”
Revolting Women tours until October 13, details: mikron.org.uk
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