Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s take on the suffrage movement hinges on a clichéd story of forbidden love between seamstress Eve Douglas and Lady Celia Cain. Debi Withers is exasperated
I could not help but be stung by sensationalism after seeing Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s critically acclaimed play Her Naked Skin at the Olivier theatre this weekend. It is, quite shockingly, the first ever original play by a woman to be performed in that theatre, something The Guardian’s interview with the playwright coyly skirts around: “Could it be to do with the Olivier stage? Some curse upon it? Rebecca shrugs as we walk towards the lifts – she can’t explain.”
Of all the unsolicited plays that the theatre receives, only one in five are ever from women, the interview goes on to reveal. Artistic director Nicholas Hytner avidly pouts about the Olivier’s particular standards: “It is a theatre that requires a particular set of skills: a muscularity of rhetoric, theme and imagination that will reach a thousand people.” Muscle indeed. The Guardian’s supposed innocence here is not convincing, but at least the edifice of patriarchal cultural colonisation is finally being chipped away in the heady days of progress we call the 21st century. That the play should use one of the greatest, and most obvious, sites of political and civic injustice for its dramatic backdrop – the suffrage campaign to gain the vote in the early years of the 21st century – should be a timely reminder of how far we haven’t come in politics and in art.
Why did I feel stung by sensationalism? It’s the sensationalism drummed up, of course, by the promise of lesbianism being portrayed on stage, the heady passion of what I will call the ‘forbidden love narrative’ which has become the standard form of representation in lesbian storytelling – at least that granted mainstream legibility. “Love is just fear I suppose. Masquerading as a fever.” These lines are spoken by Celia Cain in the play, an upper middle class suffrage campaigner who becomes embroiled with the plaintively innocent Eve Douglas, a working class newbie to the militant actions of the WSPU (the Women’s Social and Political Union – the militant branch of Suffragettes, with the motto “deeds not words”) and also the wonderful, if stressful, world of lesbo loving. It is in prison where their hearts cross paths – they share lustful looks over the potato peeling, and their relationship takes form in the clandestine spaces of cells, Eve’s bedroom and the romantically divine Epping forest. Anywhere. Just not in full view of the public, of course. The forbidden love narrative is pungently realised through jumpy kisses and the promise of dangerous excitement.
I am not being callous with my description of the plot, or disrespectful to the history of women who have tried to love each other passionately and honestly. Only today did my lover and I receive lesbophobic derision on the streets of London, which only serves to remind me that public is not always a safe space to be in. Nor am I being unrealistic about the extent whereby female bonds can flourish in periods which are less forgiving or ’emancipated’. My worry is how the forbidden love story has become the recurring and standardised trope of lesbian fiction – be it on film, TV, theatre, or in books. These forms of representation are increasingly pedestrian, uninspiring and, I would argue, reinforce heteropatriarchal ideas of what a lesbian life should look like, what it is allowed to look like.
I know how it feels to be hungry for forms of representation when the way you live your life is marginalised and largely invisible. When I was in my late teens I burned to see the lesbian kiss on the first series of Bad Girls – another famous show, and lately musical, where woman-woman loving becomes legitimate only when it is in an enclosed space – a show I watched with my mother who interjected a culturally-conditioned “ergh” when the two lips met. I wonder if there were similar baby dykes in the audience of Her Naked Skin on Saturday night while my lover and I watched the play with our arms wrapped around each other in a contented moment of PDA. This is the post L-Word generation though – as long as you have a TV and are allowed to watch it, you are offered a gateway to a myriad of lesbian, gender queer and trans characters. Lucky, lucky. That is TV though, and not necessarily life.
What was once a lifestyle, a sexuality, just who you are or a political choice (delete as appropriate) plagued by invisibility and marginalisation, becomes legible only on the condition that it is forbidden, denied, tragic. The last scene of Her Naked Skin fully enforces this: as the lights go down Celia is alone, weeping, as she hears of Eve’s impending marriage to a man in Walthamstow – the news brought to her by the wonderfully charismatic Flo, played by Susan Engel, who reminded me of the few maniacal feminist activists I know (vive la persistence!)
I cannot help but feel that the story of forbidden love satisfies and even titillates what Monique Wittig described as the ‘straight mind’. The mind that doesn’t have to be confronted with the socially disruptive relational challenge posed by women’s homo-social and erotic bonds in contemporary and historical society. I may sound like a like a radical 70’s separatist in saying so, but I hate to see possibility co-opted, contained, rendered normal, polite, acceptable. I left the theatre confused to why the name Her Naked Skin was chosen, when it seemed to bare only minimally on the play, aside from dangling a tasty carrot before the audience that they might get to see some womanly flesh on display tucking into another’s. Perhaps I should give the audience more credit but I can’t help feeling that they fell for that marketing ploy hook, line and sinker.
What could have been different, why am I complaining? It’s the collapse towards misery that I am resistant to, especially in the history of the suffrage movement which is bursting with a number of examples of implied lesbian relationships including Annie Kenney, Grace Roe and Christabel Pankhurst herself, as well as publicly known figures such as Ethel Smyth, that could have been drawn upon to tell a different kind of story. A story that runs counter to the dominant narratives where closure is not meted by prohibition or one, or both, of the woman’s marriage to man (not, of course, to each other). I’m not hankering happily ever after either, the staple of heterosexual rom-coms (girl meets boy, gets married in the end, etc) that predominate the stories we are largely told when growing up and just about everywhere, still. The stories we tell, and the way we tell them, matter. If the standard lesbian story becomes subsumed into these patterns of thwarted enclosure and denial – mediated by the promise of misery – we are all impoverished. There is nothing radical about rendering the perverse, dangerous or revolutionary acceptable fodder for theatre going crowds.
You may be forgiving for thinking I want to live outside society culturally, emotionally and sexually? This could not be further from the truth: I don’t want to be invisible. I don’t want to be homogeneous either, or miserable. While Her Naked Skin offered a valuable dramatisation of the suffrage era with its militancy, campaigning and imprisonment, the political debates, the force feeding and to be truthful, I have perhaps unfairly homed in on one aspect of the play (but nonetheless its unique selling point) that bristled against my spine – plotwise in terms of its ‘lesbian content’ it was disappointing and, at worse, cliché. Like the suffragettes I refuse to be satisfied with second best. Give me a hammer and I’ll beat out some words.
See also this post about Her Naked Skin on The F-Word blog, for more discussion about the play