Her Naked Skin

Tue 13th – Sat 17th May 2014

reviews

Elizabeth Crowdy

at 03:45 on 14th May 2014

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Darkness fell, a screen came down, and original footage of 4th June 1913 when Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby was shown to the ADC audience. This was a fitting start to a play so centred on the WSPU and their efforts for universal suffrage, and created a sense of excitement for what was to come. Sadly, the play fell somewhat short of this expectation.

Though there were undoubtedly some great performers involved in this production. Yasmin Freeman as Florence Booman gave a spectacular air of the experience of hardship undergone by older suffragettes, and Rosanna Suppa’s Briggs added a much needed comic element to the play. Yet despite this, there seemed to be a lack of energy throughout. The multitudinous dialogue scenes, though full of historical and love interest, did not manage to engage the audience fully. The conversation at times was slow and awkward, and the transitions between scenes, though obviously well-rehearsed, happened too often, and prevented any momentum from being gained.

In addition, some scenes, particularly Celia’s conversation and encounter in the Ritz, confused the audience. There seemed to be a general bewilderment if the situation was meant to be induce cringing, laughter, horror, disgust, or a combination of all of these. Hopefully this will become clear as the run continues.

There also seemed to be a stark contrast in the play: the scenes of dialogue and conversation in parliament were interspersed with scenes designed to shock. These scenes were chilling, and gave an raw insight into the horrors of what suffragettes underwent. One of such scenes caused a member of the audience to leave the theatre, and though never a good thing, it is perhaps testament to the success of the director in recreating these appalling historical truths. Yet the extreme difference of these scenes to the other situations we were presented with gave a jarring, uncomfortable air to the play as a whole.

The plot of Eve and Celia’s relationship was strong, and Claudia Grigg-Edo and Bea Svistunenko made a convincing couple, with some moving kisses, and an effective portrayal of two women conducting their first same sex relationship. Despite this, some scenes retained an air of awkwardness. I was uncertain if this detracted from their relationship, or merely emphasised their inexperience as characters, but this awkwardness also contributed to the slowing down of the play more generally.

Though a hard hitting account of homosexual life in the suffragette movement, this play has a way to go if it truly wishes to hold the attention of the audience throughout. The ideas are good, but the full potential of the play to captivate has not yet been fulfilled.

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Sarah Grice

at 11:38 on 14th May 2014

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On 24 July 2008, Her Naked Skin by Rebecca Lenkiewicz premiered at the National Theatre – the first original play by a female writer ever to be performed on the Olivier stage. A modern day suffragist victory for a play depicting the suffragette struggles of the early 20th century. This production shines in its moments of real tenderness and intimacy, but overall lacks dramatic potency, and is reductive in its political message.

This production takes a considerable time to come into its own. Admittedly this is part of the scheme of the play as it handles its heavy political themes by beginning with impersonal set-pieces, then microscoping in on the more intimate detail. The use of film footage to foreground the tragic sacrifice of Emily Davison at the 1913 Derby is effective. However the opening scenes fail to grip. First, a caricatured snapshot of male politics, albeit exhibiting Lenkewicz’s talent for humorous, cutting dialogue: ‘Militant suffragism is like a pain in the body. Monomania.’ Next, a cluttered ensemble scene (which utilised a lot of newspaper to no great effect). This rather flat lead-in is redeemed by the arrival of long-suffering radical Florence Boorman (Yasmin Freeman), who stridently declares her occupation to be ‘Suffragist, suffragette; womanist, woman.’ Freeman delivers a consistently strong performance, and the costume and makeup teams should be commended on their efforts here. The decision to cast women in male roles worked well, with multiple female cast members adopting credibly masculine characteristics – Aoife Kennan stood out in particular as Celia’s husband William Cain. Rosanna Suppa received a handful of laughs from the audience in her turn as irascible prison warden Mrs Briggs. The set is aesthetically effective – the gramophone, antique table, and wooden coat stand are nice touches – however the drawn-out scene changes can be distracting.

The strength of Her Naked Skin lies in the personal narrative of the lesbian love affair between upper-crust, unhappily married Celia Cain (Bea Svistunenko) and working-class suffragette Eve Douglas (Claudia Grigg-Edo). Svistunenko is as commanding in her delivery, and the actresses develop a sensitive, and sensual rapport as their relationship blossoms. The intimate closing scene of the first act is confidently handled, revealing the lovers on a mattress in a softly lit stage with sultry strains of jazz in the background. The dialogue here is naturalistic and racy, ‘I keep thinking about your body. I’m mentally stripping you all the time.’ Unfortunately, despite some good performances after initial awkwardness (was this first night nerves or an attempt to convey a new erotic experience?), the over-explicit class tensions undermine the credibility of their romance. Celia, an almost Ibsenite heroine in her domestic dissatisfaction and articulated desire to become part of ‘some tragedy’, treats her lover in an essentially exploitative manner. 'Love is just fear, I suppose. Masquerading as a fever.' Eve is a casualty in Celia's quest for social liberation. Lenkiewicz has been hailed as a Sarah Waters of the stage, but in fact the way in which the play uses the familiar trope of forbidden lesbian love is clichéd and unradical.

With some genuinely uncomfortable, graphic scenes such as Boorman’s unceremonious dunking in a water pail, the horrific force-feeding of Eve via a tube through her nostrils, and Eve’s attempted suicide, the production does carry some dramatic force. However I felt that the suffragette setting of the play remains just that. Politics are subsumed by the personal, and the rich historical canvas could perhaps have been better utilised. In a play centred around such important feminist issues, I would have liked to hear the political voices and motivations of the female characters prioritized over the doomed love narrative. However this takes issue with the play itself rather than production, which on the whole continues to gather pace after a slow start. Overall, a lacklustre play which promises much, and delivers little.

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