Edinburgh Fringe 2018
Census night, 1911. Suffragette Emily Davison is hiding in a cleaning cupboard, in the crypt beneath the Palace of Westminster. Emily plans a daring and courageous act in Parliament for Monday morning, but with a greater police presence and security tighter than usual, will she achieve her ambition before she is caught and returned to prison? Written and performed by Deborah Clair and Philippa Urquhart to celebrate the 2018 suffrage centenary. Directed by Dominique Gerrard.
A simple set, impossibly high stakes, and the intimate relationship which develops between two women of entirely different social classes are the ingredients for the quietly powerful and oddly current play, A Necessary Woman which marks the centennial celebration of the passage of the 1918 Representation of the People Act. Deborah Claire, as Emily Davidson in full period regalia, the trappings of the wealthy elite enters the small stage and acting in near silence and darkness, squirreling herself away in the cupboard in the crypt beneath the House of Commons, fitfully rests awaiting the Census. Much of the early action takes place on the floor, an unfortunate choice in the small space as the action is lost to all but the front row however this small oversight is quickly rectified with the appearance of Mary, the local servant to the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir James Lowther. Fearing that the crypt is haunted Mary runs to find help only to discover that her specter is none other than “one of those suffragettes.”
The next hour is a debate over the bonds of womanhood and the clash of social class and access, an intense sorority which develops between Emily, a would-be activist and disruptor whose privilege has led her to feel the weight of responsibility to give voice to those who are silenced, though she herself has never felt the sting of wanting, and Mary, whose fortunes are determined by the loyalty of her patron and employer, the very person whom Emily hopes to disrupt.
The script is generally effective moving the plot forward while giving ample opportunity to the heroines to expose a greater depth of character, however there seems a discomfort with the dialogue and the space, often requiring exits off stage which are labored and exposed the actors to the infrequent but obvious trip hazard navigating the black curtains in the cramped space. However, any awkwardness or hesitation was all but forgiven with an incredibly emotionally complex monologue by Mary, as she explains her conflict with betraying her lord and master, and makes the case for herself as a necessary woman, detailing her role as the keeper of the fire with such pride and pathos in her raised rank in station, from little more than a poor, barefoot other mouth to feed to a loyal servant of nearly 6 decades that even Emily is made to question her own motives. It was a revelation for actress and playwright.
The debate between two women regarding the vote and the role of suffragettes in polite society was a welcome one as it is rare to see how women of different classes felt about the responsibility of voting and it cast a long shadow over our own modern sensibilities. It was hard for this American critic to not hear the very recent cries of miners and blue collar Americans as Mary detailed her own existence so entwined with her employer, and Emily, attempting to wrest her and others from the shadows, these ghost women whose contributions were unrecognized, championed her own cause, “Women do not count, neither shall they be counted.”