Much of the talk about Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play Her Naked Skin has focused on the rather shameful fact that it is the first play by a female writer to be staged on the main Olivier stage at the National Theatre. Which whilst true and a definite achievement in itself, should not detract from the fact that this is a really rather sensationally good play.
Set in the Suffragette Movement in London in 1913 with excitement in the air as victory can be tasted, but times have never been more frenzied or dangerous as militant tendencies are at their strongest and many women are experiencing jail time on a regular basis. Lenkiewicz pitches the continuance of this struggle against the more personal story of Lady Celia Cain, bored in life and with her traditional marriage and family, who launches into a passionate lesbian love affair with a much younger, much more lower-class seamstress whom she shares a cell with and soon much more. As the affair hots up, so too does the political climate as emancipation comes closer to becoming a reality.
It is so effective on so many levels: the horrors faced by the women in prison, included a most brutal instance of force-feeding that is seared on the memory; the struggle against the establishment that they faced in trying to get their message across, resorting even to violence; the changing political climate with even men publicly calling for women to be given the vote. On top of all of that though is the class struggles that nevertheless persisted and one wonders if it would have been the lesbianism or the social mismatch that would have caused the most scandal in Celia’s social circle. It is a heady mix but one which captivates.
Lesley Manville is perfect as the upper class Celia, ruthless in her pursuit of what she wants both on the personal and political scale and so very brittly effective. Jemima Rooper’s piece of rough Eve plays off her well, habitually out of her depth with her love who is more experienced in love, in life, in everything. Susan Engel is a frequent scene-stealer as an acidly funny blue stocking Florence Boorman, more intelligent than probably anyone else around and utterly devoted to the cause. Adam Rawlins does extremely well as the husband put aside by Celia with a sympathetic portrayal showing that it wasn’t just women who were the victims, there were men and children affected by their actions too.
It is effectively staged with Rob Howell’s design, the cells being the most striking image, played off with the dullness of the potato peeling they have to do and the sheer horror of the force-feeding scene which is truly harrowing and difficult to watch. The projection of film and images of real suffragettes like Emily Wilding Davison adds a real poignancy to the production and serves as a reminder that whilst these are fictional characters, their struggle was all too painfully real.
Her Naked Skin offers up a highly revelatory dramatisation of the suffrage era, showing the courage and passion of those involved, the relentless merry-go-round of militant campaigning and subsequent imprisonments and the sheer determination of a group of women who could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel and would not give up until the prize was theirs.