Review: Her Naked Skin

By John Nathan, August 28, 2008

Olivier, National Theatre, London SE1

It is hard to believe, but the first play by a woman to reach the Olivier stage is Rebecca Lenkiewicz's latest work about suffragettes - or, as one of the Edwardian politicians in her play call them, a "lunatic fringe of lonely, frigid women who crave attention".

I worry - slightly - that, by constructing her play around a lesbian relationship between the married upper-class activist Celia Cain (Lesley Manville) and the lower-class militant Eve Douglas (Jemima Rooper), Lenkiewicz might inadvertently bolster a cliché here or a prejudice there about feminists.

But the power of this play lies more in its politics than its personal story. Howard Davies's long but fast-moving production features an ingenious design by Rob Howell that sets the action in and around revolving prison cages. It elevates women's suffrage to a status equal to that of any civil-rights movement, and one for which Britain's Edwardian women made huge sacrifices.

The scene in which the hunger-striking Eve is force-fed through the nose is as harrowing a moment as I can remember in the theatre. And I know that for some this may be a loaded comment to make in a JC review, but it is as well to remember where Lenkiewicz's history play would today make its greatest impact - the Islamic societies where women do not even have the right to drive, let alone vote.

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Last updated: 11:09am, August 29 2008