In a picture-perfect English setting of Appley cricket pavilion,,with a groundsman watering an immaculate pitch outside, the peace is ruptured by cries of “Votes for Women!”This blast from the past is the opening of a new play called Oxygen performed for one night only last week at Appley, the work of playwright Natalie McGrath, formerly writer in residence at The Brewhouse Theatre in Taunton.
Oxygen tells the rousing story of a group of women who in 1913 walked more than 300 miles over six weeks from Land’s End to
a rally in Hyde Park.
Art imitates life in this production. While it is about the 1913 Great Suffrage Pilgrimage in which women converged on London from eight directions across the country, the play follows the route of Cornish women who crossed the South West.
And the production itself is also on the march, touring venues across the route trodden by the women through Cornwall and Devon, and on to Hyde Park via Bristol, Bath, Chippenham, Marlborough, Swindon and Richmond in south-west London.
The play opens with a rousing speech from Annie Kenney of the Women’s Social and Political Union, frustrated by the Government’s 1910 Bill which gave more votes to men, but not women. Her battle cry inspires working women to take up the cause.
The play charts the struggles of the movement showing the differences between the militants who smash windows and those who choose peaceful protest. The five actors play both militant and non-militant women, signalling which side they are on by the simple device of either donning a red white and green banner for the non-militants or a purple, white and green banner for the militants.
Key moments of the struggle are covered: the window-breaking campaign, hunger strikes and how force feeding was abandoned in the cat-and-mouse act which signals that hunger strikers are to be released only to be re-arrested. There is a powerful scene when the women react to the death of Emily Davison who was killed after stepping out in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913.
But this play is much more than a history lesson, it teases out both personal and political struggles as the women try to juggle demands of family and their commitment to the movement.
Although the big speeches are powerful, the play is at its best when we hear the voices of women at the grassroots, for instance recording the nervousness of the Cornish marchers who have been taunted by the Plymouth dockers who are surprised to see the women out on wash-day. One of the women is nervous of striding forth as she’s never left Cornwall before. London seems daunting to her as the biggest place she’s ever been to is Truro. Her pleasure when she does eventually reach London is tangible.
Poignantly as the march is completed one of the women surveys their achievement “Our bodies are not for abuse or commodification now are they? We don’t want to be struggling with these problems 100 years on…”
A strong cast, imaginative staging, powerful emotions… catch this production if you can as it marches on to London. It promises to tug at your heartstrings and make you think.
For more information see www.dreadnoughtsouthwest.org.uk
Report: Anne Horner