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A CurtainUp London London Review
Her Naked Skin

What we are dealing with here is a lunatic fringe of lonely, frigid women who crave attention.— Herbert Asquith
Her Naked Skin
Lesley Manville as Lady Celia Cain and Jemima Rooper as Eve Douglas
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Rebecca Lenkiewicz has crafted a realistic political play detailing some of the events in the campaign to secure female suffrage in the UK. Starting with the suicide of a woman who threw herself under the King's horse at the races on Derby Day, Lenkeiwicz's play is set in 1913 and looks at the way in which these women committed acts of vandalism to bring attention to their cause. They were sentenced to prison and force fed by prison medical staff after they went on hunger strike.

The "Votes for Women" movement brought together women of different classes. Factory workers campaigned alongside women from the landed gentry and must have been eye opening for all concerned. Coming as it did just before the outbreak of the First World War, the outcome saw the granting of the vote to some women in January 1918 and to everyone over the age of 21 in 1928. These reforms have been attributed to the need for social change brought about by the war as much as to the campaign led by the Suffragettes.

The war increased the need for women workers to be employed in factories to take over from men called up for military service. In April 1913 conscious of the bad publicity that the brutal force feeding of women was attracting, the government passed The Cat and Mouse Act which allowed hunger striking women to be released from prison in order to regain their health, only for them to be re-arrested when they were fit. If they died after release from the weakness at least they had not died in custody. This was a manipulative law designed to minimise protest to the government of the day.

The central fictitious figure in Her Naked Skin is Lady Celia Cain (Lesley Manville). Her quest for excitement away from her rather monotonous marriage leads her into the campaign, prison and an erotic relationship with Eve Douglas (Jemima Rooper), a seamstress from the East End. It is as if Lady Celia's quest for excitement leads her to experiment sexually after going on demonstrations has paled in the risk stakes. I'm not sure which Edwardian society would have found more shocking, the Lesbian relationship or the friendship across class boundaries.

There are scenes set among the men who ruled the country showing some ugly, antiquated attitudes towards women in the pompous safety of those London St James' gentlemen's clubs and at the then male preserve of the House of Commons. There is also the portrait of Lady Celia's husband (Adrian Rawlins), a man sympathetic to the cause on a political level but powerless to make his wife happy on a personal one.

It is the scenes designed by Rob Howell set in Holloway prison, which make the most impact on your memory. The raised stage houses maybe half a dozen cells with clanging, heavy iron doors. The women wear long dresses decorated with prison arrow logos and small bonnets tied under the chin and are given bucketfuls of potatoes to peel. The actual force feeding scene is too horrific to contemplate in its barbarity as a six feet long tube is pushed down through the woman's nose to her stomach and milk or egg and milk poured through a funnel. She would immediately vomit.

Lesley Manville is a very accomplished actor but her part is full of contradictions. The effect of Lady Celia's single minded commitment to the Suffragettes makes her seem rather harsh towards her lover, Eve, and indeed rather uncaring about the effect this lifestyle was having on her five children and her husband. Susan Engel steals many of the best lines as Florence Boorman, an intelligent woman, a blue stocking devoted to the cause with an acid wit and gumption. When the prison doctor asks her what she thinks of some of her women horsewhipping a man in the street, she mischievously expresses the hope that he paid them "the going rate." Jemima Rooper's Eve is youthful, single minded and lacking in social graces and understanding. She is an ingénue socially and quite out of her depth with Lady Celia.

Although I can see its intention in translating from the large political ideas to the smaller scale personal level, I found Celia and Eve's romance distracting. Her Naked Skin is beautifully directed by Howard Davies but it is the history, the images of the life in prison and the unwanted, privileged treatment for the wealthy and famous, which will stay with me.

This is surprisingly the first production of a new play by a woman in the National Theatre's largest stage, the Olivier Theatre. Maybe equality has a way to go.

Her Naked Skin
Written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Directed by Howard Davies

Starring: Lesley Manville, Susan Engel, Jemima Rooper
With: Pamela Merrick, Zoë Aldrich, David Beames, Harriet Quarrie, Julien Ball, Ken Bones, Simon Markey, Robert Willox, Tony Turner, Stephanie Jacob, Dermot Kerrigan, Nick Malinowski, Elicia Daly, Stephanie Thomas, Ruth Keeling, Edward Newborn, Joe Dunlop, Gerard Monaco, Deborah Winckles, Barbara Kirby, Anna Lowe
Design: Rob Howell
Lighting: Neil Austin
Projection Design: Jon Driscoll
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Music: Harvey Brough
Running time: Two hours 40 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 24th September 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 9th August 2008 at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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