Once upon a time women in this country couldn’t vote…
No, this is not the opening line of a fairy tale but the reason why the suffragettes came together to right this wrong. Now Leeds-based radical theatre company Red Ladder are touring Wrong ‘Un which tells the tale of working class suffragette and mill worker Annie Wilde who decides to fight for her right to vote.
“Boff Whalley and I have working together for years trying to make musical theatre that is accessible and popular without dumbing down so it’s got a message but it’s a good night out,” says Dixon.” But those shows are always expensive as you can have a band of six and actors so you have ten on stage. We talked about how we could scale it down so Boff said I’m going to try to break all the rules and make a musical for one person .I said, ‘brilliant, an acapella musical’.”
The show really came into focus when Whalley’s research into this fierce struggle for equality took an unexpected turn.
“He found out just by pure fluke that a friend of his had a big suitcase – a bit of a cliché – from her great-grandmother who was a suffragette which she’d never really looked at before. So she opened them and they were full of the most amazing writing, letters from Winston Churchill, letters from Emmeline Pankhurst and a medal for going on hunger strike, so she realised her great-grandmother was really radical. She’d been in Holloway Prison three times, she’d put knife through a picture in the National Gallery so she thought ‘wow, my great-grandmother was really quite a fighter.’
“So Boff said let’s make a show about this woman but he came up with a show where it was about this haridan and crazy woman. But we sat down to talk about it and I said most people who take direct action aren’t crazy, they really care and are passionate about things. My partner and I have been to climate camp getting bashed by the police for being in a field and we were really scared.
“Boff said you’re right and we decided to tell the story of an unknown suffragette who is not going to go down in the history books and tell her story. So he went back to the drawing board to write the story of an ordinary mill worker and the audience realises she is just like them then apart from the fact she bursts into song – but because she sings acapella, it is like someone in your parlour singing about her life. It’s a bit of genius as it is something Red Ladder has tried to do for the last few years which is a good night out but is accessible and political.”
Unlike some perceptions of the suffragette movement as a rosy picture of selfless posh women in big hats lobbying parliament, this piece explores a different viewpoint of women; women like Emily Davison who threw herself under the King’s horse running in the Epsom Derby; women prepared to sacrifice everything to secure equal rights.
“It was largely working class women who were on frontline in the clog and shawl brigade who did some of the risky stuff,” says Dixon. “At the end of the piece she says ‘it’s 1918 and we got the vote’, the audience all cheer. Then she says ‘no we didn’t get the vote, only ladies did’. That’s an important message for young women to hear.
“The White Feather campaign to persuade men to go to war before conscription was actually led by the suffragettes which I didn’t know and it was posh women who did it. Emmeline Pankhurst did a deal to stop all direct action because we were at war so this bullying campaign to force young men to fight was led by the suffragettes. A lot of working class women walked away from the movement as did Christabel Pankhurst who went to the East End to set up soup kitchens.”
One-handed shows are often the most demanding in theatre: there’s nowhere to hide and no other performers to bounce off. However, when Red Ladder decided on this format there was only one candidate to play a tough mill worker and the other characters who join in the action.
“Boff had seen Ella Harris perform before and he wanted to write a one woman show for her so he always had her in mind. She’s from Peckham originally so learning the Nelson accent was really important for her. It’s written with her voice in mind, and her humour as well, so it was a collaborative process between her, Boff and the director Justin Auidbert. It was Ella who said I don’t want to perform Annie as a crazy woman, I want to be genuine.
“Audiences are drawn in by Ella as she is doing an hour playing five characters which she slips in and out of with a change of expression or voice which is really skilled. That is what wins people over and it’ll really interesting when we play places like Richmond in North Yorkshire, which I’m sure are quite blue, but I think they will enjoy the show. We don’t just want to preach to the converted.”
It might be a campaign of civil disobedience the suffragettes fought a century ago but Dixon thinks the lessons from their struggle should unnerve our ruling class.
“I think that message scares all politicians from all parties, Ed Miliband included as it was a Labour government who created the forward intelligence units filming everybody out on the streets. What has changed is as soon as you step on the streets you are criminalised and most ordinary people aren’t arrestable. I think the big march against the Iraq War with a million people on the streets scared them as it was very calm with no violence.”
Dixon adds: “Good theatre has a human touch and because it is also about Annie’s relationship with her brother it is universal and that touches people. At one point in every show the audience gasps because it hits home and makes them think about their own relationships, so it not just a woman in an Edwardian dress on stage.
“That’s the thing with Red Ladder, we’re really anxious not to be labelled as old-school so if you look at the publicity and see a show about suffragettes sponsored by Unite the Union that must be old lefty. That’s the very thing we are trying not to be as we want to take the form and modernise to make it contemporary.”
By Paul Clarke
Images by Tim Smith
What: Red Ladder: songs of Solidarity, sufferage and strength featuring Wrong ‘Un and folk duo O’Hooley & Tidow
Where: Leeds City Varieties
When: January 23 and 24, 2014 and touring
More info: tour details at www.redladder.co.uk