Cause and effect

EWDplay.jpgAngela Smith reflects on a new one-woman play about militant suffragette Emily Wilding Davison

What better place to perform a play about Emily Wilding Davison than in the Parliament that she fought so hard to allow women to vote for?

Tonight, to an audience of MPs and Peers, Parliament will host a performance of a new, one-woman play Emily – the Making of a Militant Suffragette. Having seen it at a local theatre on Friday night, this collaborate effort – devised jointly by the writer Ros Connelly, director Kath Burlinson and actor Elizabeth Crarer – is a compelling performance that will stay in my mind for a long, long time. Supported by The Production Exchange, a new organisation whose objectives include the promotion of education through drama and dance, and to support, encourage and showcase new theatrical talent. 

Most of us know two key things about Emily. First, that she died under the hooves of the King’s horse, Anmer in the 1913 Derby. Second, that in 1911 she was the first women to declare the House of Commons as her place of residence on a Census form having spent a grim and exhausting night in the Commons chapel.

The play however, explores what made the intellectual, middle class Emily become so passionate about the women’s suffrage cause that she suffered several short terms of imprisonment – with all the indignities and violence it brought. A victim of the notorious 'Cat and Mouse Act', she was both force fed and forced into unhygienic, uncomfortable prison clothes. Yet nothing could dim her sprit for the cause to which she lost her life. 

The Emily in the play is not just a political activist – but a woman of beliefs, faith and humour. She was passionate about education, her work for the Workers Educational Association and a prolific writer; although not all her work has survived. She worked for the Women’s Social and Political Union, before finding herself in less sympathy with its leaders Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, possibly because of political differences.

The play shows Emily as a very warm human being who as a young woman could never have imagined what lay ahead for her. Enthralling, moving and inspirational, it is now coming towards the end of a month long tour. Elizabeth Crarer in the title role is spectacular in her portrayal of the woman she clearly admires. With no props beyond a suitcase, hat, apron, chair and rope, the writing and direction is stunning and profound.

Speaking to the audience after Friday’s performance, Elizabeth pondered whether any of us would have the courage to take the same path as Emily in similar circumstances. Indeed, few of us could hope to leave such a legacy.

Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is a member of Labour’s Frontbench in the Lords and Chair of The Production Exchange. She tweets @LadyBasildon

Published 8th April 2014

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