Edinburgh Fringe 2018
The remarkable true story of Muriel Matters, the South Australian actress and elocutionist who became a leading figure in the UK suffragette movement and the foremost woman orator in Britain.
This is an ambitious and impressive historical drama performed as a one-woman show. It is also an empathetic and heartfelt account of a life that has been, until now, ‘hidden from history.’ Joanne Hartstone takes us through the chronology of Muriel Matters’ life, as she moves from Australia to England, with vivacity and engagement. There is a real sense of commitment to her story and the issues that she came to feel deeply about: votes for women and democracy. It throws new light on a period of history potentially known to the audience, and adds a new name to the cast of characters in the Suffragette movement with whom we may already be familiar.
The play as a whole is researched and written with meticulous care for historical accuracy and veracity. This is evident from the start by the accent, vocabulary, and style of Joanne Hartstone’s speech, faithful to the period, in a form of spoken English rarely heard now. The naturalistic set is constructed with close attention to the details of the historical period in terms of lighting, furniture and props. This is subverted at times when props and furniture are used unexpectedly and wittily to create new scenes during the progress of the play and its story. The range of costumes and hats for women of a certain class, worn with great panache by the performer, also signal the time period effectively.
A further detail is the silent movie/magic lantern style slides which accompany the show, providing chapter headings and expanding on the context- such as reviews of her work in the British or Australian press. However, some audience members were straining to read the slides from the back of the theatre as the text was too small and the slides often moved too quickly. The alternative accompanying sheet would need to be in a larger font to make it readable during the show, as is suggested. It is a shame to miss out on accessing this information as it is integral to the show.
Like a Russian doll, we are watching a performer tell the story of Muriel Matters, who was herself a performer. At times we are the audience for the autobiographical direct address of her story; at other times we become the audience for (extracts of) her performances in Australia, or her speeches in England. We are mostly given the public persona of this very public character. But in the intimations of her private life – largely implied, to some extent unfulfilled and sensitively hinted at – we see the potential of an inner life.
The programme notes state that ‘to show so much time passing through so many events and locations has been a fantastic challenge.’ This challenge is largely met by Joanne Hartstone’s considerable ability to create a set of believable ‘off stage’ characters important in her life and her capacity to render a huge range of imaginary scenes for the audience – often with humour – out of a single set.
There are moments of unexpected current and topical relevance for the audience, such as when she abandons the theatre due to male propositioning for advancement in her career, or when she comments with shock on the level of homelessness in London and the visible inequality between rich and poor.
Playing to a capacity and appreciative house, Joanne Hartstone successfully brings Muriel Matters to life in a varied and lively performance, and presents her as a ‘modern’ woman of her time, with a commitment to social justice. This is an excellent show.