For what cause would you give up six weeks of your life, leaving your home and family to walk 300 miles? Would you be willing to go to prison for this cause? To endure force-feeding twice-daily, suffering broken ribs, a broken nose and damaged lungs for the rest of your life? To die? These questions all came to the fore as I sat in the sun-bathed bowl of Rougemont Gardens watching Oxygen, a new play by Exeter-based Natalie McGrath that celebrates the courage and spirit of the women who fought and campaigned and sacrificed so much to make sure that I, as a woman in the 21st century, can vote.
Oxygen tells the story of The Great 1913 Suffrage Pilgrimage, which saw thousands of women march across Britain to ensure their voices were heard. At its heart is the story of two sisters, one of whom joins the militant suffragettes – who committed acts of arson and criminal damage to make their point – and one who joins the suffragists on their peaceful pilgrimage, rallying and raising support in every town in which they stopped. In this centenary year, Dreadnought South West Association are touring the play along the original South West route, from Land’s End to London, to commemorate this extraordinary event in regional and national history, and to remind us that the reasons those women demanded the vote – to end sweated labour, to end child poverty, to end the white slave traffic – are issues that remain relevant today.
The play unfolds in Brechtian ‘epic’ form, in a series of Episodes that switch between the law-abiding suffragists on the pilgrimage and the militant suffragettes; women speak to gathered crowds, and ‘newsies’ vent their rage from the gutters in which they are forced to stand in order to sell the suffragettes’ newspaper, as being on the pavement had been outlawed; the peaceful suffragists are attacked in Marlborough, and a Holloway survivor struggles to pull breath into her damaged lungs. The episodic form denies a smooth narrative arc; the notion of disruption built into the structure as much as the story.
The simple yet effective set – beautifully designed by Sophia Clist – holds the space, a rope denoting the world of the play, over which the cast regularly venture to directly address the audience. The five performers remain present throughout, sometimes turning their backs, sometimes standing beneath the pale poles – so like shivered bone – or behind the pale boxes that comprise the props. All the set changes happen before our eyes, as does the slippage between different characters – a deep inhalation like a pause – reminding us that this is the world of illusion, watch us transform it; just as the world outside, the world of the audience, the world in which action can effect change, is similarly malleable if we choose to engage with it in that way.
But where Oxygen detours from the Brechtian model is in the emotional depth; I felt deeply emotionally engaged with these characters, with their suffering and their courage, such as when a grief-stricken Frances (the superb Rebecca Hulbert) demands a full minute’s silence for Emily Davison, or Grace (a compelling Carolyn Tomkinson) comes to terms with what she left behind in order to participate in the march.
The Dreadnought South West project is more than just a touring play, however. Its wider aims are to champion women’s voices and stories in the region through arts and heritage projects. Exeter-based collaborators include artists Catherine Cartwright and Nicci Wonnocott, who worked with marginalised women to create the beautiful finger-knitted map that is a key prop in the play. There are other ‘waymarker’ events that are running alongside the tour, organised by independent groups galvanised into action. When the cast arrived in Topsham, for instance, to perform Episodes from the play at the Museum, they were met by women dressed in suffragist colours who joined them on a walk to the station; and the Bike Shed Theatre’s New Blood writing season has been provoked by the issues raised.