— Production photos by Nancy Caldwell.
This is Jerry’s review of the same production at Jericho Arts Centre last January.
The recent death of Nelson Mandela unfolded like a play or a film, triggering flashbacks to the battles he led against apartheid. Struggles like his make great drama, marking the victory of the noble underdog over a powerful, deeply entrenched system of oppression. Think of the movie Mandela with its focus on the singular hero.
Not all such struggles produce a larger-than-life individual protagonist. Most are won by countless unsung heroes and heroines whose road to history-making change is marked by small, painful, incremental victories.
Rebel Women, a documentary play created and directed by Joan Bryans for her Vital Spark Theatre Company, chronicles the fight for women's suffrage a century ago in Britain. It celebrates multiple protagonists: the suffragettes from all classes who fought to win the vote for those millions of women who had been historically denied the same rights as men. The play traces their struggle over a ten-year period from its rather genteel beginnings through its militant phase, described by its leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, as a revolution waged by women.
It's an important tale of heroic self-sacrifice, atrocities and appalling resistance to change, which finally yielded English women the franchise in 1918. A similar story was playing out in Canada, the United States and elsewhere in the western world in the same era. Rebel Women makes an excellent history lesson. But as dynamic theatre it takes a while to get untracked.
Bryans has created a verbatim play, reproducing the actual words of the people involved from their speeches and documents. This is a tricky strategy since much of this kind of material is inherently undramatic. It requires careful shaping and editing, and clever theatrical shorthand to vividly show the story that the words only tell.
We don't get this at first. The play opens with Mrs. Pankhurst (Barbara Ellison) explaining at length how English men received the right to vote during the 19th century while women remained shut out, and how the suffrage movement needs to escalate its tactics to get some serious attention from those in power. A long scene follows in which Emmeline's daughter Christabel (Lindsay Nelson) and suffragette Annie Kenney (Barbara Kozicki) interrupt a political meeting when the politicians refuse to acknowledge their questions about votes for women.
More effective is a song (with lively piano accompaniment by Pat Unruh) that pointedly lays out the nature of the opposition: "Women have husbands by whom they are protected. Why do they want the vote?" Another zinger comes from a woman hawking the suffragette pamphlet Votes for Women. When a passing man asks sarcastically, "Are you prepared to do a man's work," she responds: "Are you prepared to do a woman's?"
The suffragettes are driven by a profound sense of injustice. As their requests and protests are ignored by a series of condescending politicians, prime ministers and kings, they take up more militant tactics: storming the House of Commons, breaking windows, getting arrested and sometimes beaten up.
In prison the women further escalate their resistance, refusing to eat. When the authorities respond to their hunger strikes by force-feeding, the play really takes off. The first act ends with a series of powerful scenarios involving Wallace Dunlop (MariaLuisa Alvarez) and Lady Constance Lytton (Jenny McLaren), an aristocrat who disguised herself as a working-class woman so as not to be given special treatment, graphically illustrating the tortures these women underwent and the courage with which they endured them for the cause. This is genuinely stirring theatre.
The second act compellingly dramatizes other individual heroines of the struggle: Emily Davison and her shocking self-sacrifice; Mary Richardson (Andrea Ware), who vandalized a famous painting in the National Gallery to protest the mistreatment of Mrs. Pankhurst in prison.
We also learn, somewhat awkwardly, about Helena Gutteridge (Sarah Ripplinger), who moved to Vancouver in 1911 to organize the suffrage movement here. Gutteridge eventually helped institute BC's first minimum wage law and was the first woman elected to Vancouver City Council.
The suffragettes' victory comes almost as an anticlimax. Suspending their protests during the Great War to work in munitions factories, they await legislation from a reluctant Prime Minister Lloyd George at the war's end. It doesn't come--then it does. The play could use a more dramatic rhythm to give shape to this climactic moment.
Kudos to Bryans and her large, committed cast for retelling this important story and reminding us what we all owe to these brave rebel women.