Women, Power & Politics: Then

As part of The Tricycle’s Women, Power & Politics series, the theatre is hosting two collections of short plays; ‘Now’ focusing on contemporary issues of women and politics, and ‘Then’, which turns its gaze on the past. This is a review of ‘Then’, the historically-focused half of the programme.

A rhythmic drumming opens the first of these short plays, which soon clarifies itself to be the marching of men’s boots. This theme of feet is picked up throughout Marie Jones’ The Milliner and the Weaver as socks are washed and shoes polished for those fighting against Home Rule. The behatted Dublin suffragette Elspeth invades the domestic space of Henrietta, a Belfast woman trying to distance herself from the movement. As the latter points out, “women spend their lives in their backyards” and she cannot afford to be labelled a “Fenian-lover”. The play reveals the truth that one cause often bleeds into another and so often people, especially women, are hampered by domestic chores from achieving their common aim.

Whatever one’s political views, there they were: the PM and the Queen. And now here they appear in double form, in a frighteningly clever and witty piece by Moira Buffini, worth the ticket price alone

It is followed by the first of the pieces by Gillian Slovo: these verbatim accounts from high-profile political women punctuate the longer pieces and remind us of the progress (or lack of) since the 1970s and ’80s. Here, Edwina Currie makes her entrance and talks of wanting to find a seat in the North, for the pragmatic reason that in the South they expect a man in a pin-stripe suit, until the famous exception in Finchley.

This led me to think about my childhood in the ’80s and how natural it seemed to have women in positions of power. Whatever one’s political views, there they were: the PM and the Queen. And now here they appear in double form, in a frighteningly clever and witty piece by Moira Buffini, worth the ticket price alone. A lot has been said, and is said here, about their disagreements; but more striking to me is how their similarities are portrayed: their younger and older versions talk of their relationships with their fathers (and wayward sons), of being the two brightly-coloured women in a world of grey suits, of having to smile or speak a certain way. They both look down on each other but seem to enjoy the verbal sparring, correcting each other and themselves constantly: “I never said that!”

I went home and asked my mum why she hadn’t gone to Greenham Common. The answer, sadly, was that she was scared of being labelled a communist

The Lioness, by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, opens with Elizabeth I in traditional wide-skirted finery. This particular fashion allows for a peculiarly comic moment in which it is revealed that beneath her petticoats, a man is inspecting the “royal velvet”. The literal sense in which she displays her marriage to her country is echoed by female politicians before and since in a more metaphorical sense: the good political husband has a template to fit just as the political wife slots into hers. Of all the plays, this is the most rooted in the past (in the “then”) and also the hardest to enjoy, perhaps because the character of Elizabeth is neither entirely sympathetic nor cartoon-evil. It does reveal the full-stage for the first time, which allows us to see the red, white and blue-painted proscenium arch and magnificent floor, suddenly making the Tricycle stage seem palatial.

Finally, Greenham. We are out on the Common, the same actors play characters without finery, without pretentions, with a sense of idealism but no self-importance – in political terms at least. It soon becomes evident that yet again, domestic tussles are in danger of dividing the women. There is argument over who gets to cook; meanwhile, a man tries to persuade his pregnant wife to leave the camp. She surprises herself by staying. Jumping forward, a member of a modern, press-savvy climate change camp realises she has something to learn from this raggle-taggle group of women of whom she has never heard, and she even has a personal connection. As Lucy Kirkwood herself says, “it is easy to laugh at passion” and Bloody Wimmin starts off as an almost cringey representation of chanting hippydom but becomes deeply affecting. It made me go home and ask my mum why she hadn’t gone. The answer, sadly, was that she was scared of being labelled a communist.

The plays are an inspiring collection and it is fantastic to see so many women on stage and behind the scenes. Indhu Rubasingham’s simple yet dynamic direction brings to life a set of plays which could stand alone, but together have a strength and clarity of vision which makes them shed light on each other. They bring to mind the struggle of modern feminism to work both with and against a media-driven society, battling for their place in a world still shaped by its history of men at war.

My only fear is that, as with so much of life, these plays will preach to audiences of the converted. There are always assumptions made about what happens when you get a group of women together to fight a cause. Back with Elspeth, on reading a newspaper report of a protest she attended, she exclaims: “We shouted, not shrieked”. These plays, too, shout.

Women, Power and Politics runs until 17 July 2010 at the Tricycle Theatre.

Kate McCarthy is a freelance writer and theatre director from London