Returning to The Orchard 2016

Returning to The Orchard

Returning to The Orchard after nearly a year away from it has been revealing.  Last year there was the exciting Rebellious Sounds Roadshow of scratch readings and rich audience dialogues across the South West.

Here we presented a raw script to audiences from the outset with the opportunity to open up meaningful dialogue with them.  All of our audiences were amazing and generous in their responses, examining and taking on the play’s content.  We wanted to know if it had potential.  If the content was rich and engaging enough to bring it to contemporary audiences.

It provoked much debate about women and politics and activism and causes and being in it for the long haul, which struck such a chord for so many.  This opened up airwaves in the play itself.

These dialogues were central to informing many of the choices made and conversations we went on to have.

I’ve said this before, but it is important to say it again, but everyone was very generous, some audiences had to be asked to leave by venues as the time was marching on, and their staff wanted us to go home as they wanted to go home!

The play developed after each scratch performance and finally landed with a sense of its form, or so I thought!

Sometimes you need that kind of distance I’ve now had to get some perspective as a writer, and it is easy to get really weighed down by what has passed when looking at re-imagining historical figures as characters on the stage.  There is another and particular kind of responsibility at stake.  It is fair to say that taking on and attempting to write known historical people is tricky.  How can a writer really know what they might say?  I had been clear from the outset that I didn’t want to load it with verbatim material.

I have been asking about the imagination and how I can make a leap with this.

Then it’s funny, (and I don’t mean ha ha), when you think you have ‘found’ the form of a play you are working on, and then the director/dramaturg, (Josie Sutcliffe), you are collaborating with on the work throws a creative grenade at you and the work.

A new thought.
A new challenge.
A final R&D.
A new leaping off point.

What I had been seeking was a kind of authenticity, maybe this isn’t simply possible (it isn’t useful as a word and isn’t possible), and so what I mean is something resonant of how I imagined these two extraordinary and influential female leaders, (Millicent Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst), voices to be and sound like.  Okay who I am I kidding, it’s an imagined version of them.  Nothing more nothing less.

Leaps you see.  They will upend you.

Clearly I can’t really possibly know or would presume to know, but who are they as characters on the stage in a play that imagines them meeting in the height of the fever of 1913.

A year full of revolution for women.  Revolution approached in different ways.  Yet still, a common cause.


When Pankhurst finds herself on the run from the dehumanising ‘cat and mouse’ act imposed by Government, and Fawcett, who is preparing her troops to walk up the arteries of the country, to converge in one place as a site and signal of peaceful protest.

Both are in motion, moving, trying to move forward and not to look back.

I wondered what might happen if they had to be still for a moment, an hour, not much more and if this happened whilst they were together.

This wondering continues as I re-find the play.

So many questions arise from imagining the potential of such a meeting.

Did they ever really meet after the Women’s Movement of the early Twentieth-Century split into the militant WSPU (Women’s Social & Political Union), and the non-militant NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies)?

Does it matter whether they did or not?

Apart from the obvious sadness that I feel for the division in the movement at the time.  I also understand that they had to follow their own paths in the fight for women’s enfranchisement.  I also wonder if somewhere they needed the opposition to give their own personal causes perspective?

Sitting one evening talking to Josie last summer about the work, she suggested that there might be another person onstage with Emmeline and Millicent.  Someone more like a Greek chorus or Ariel, who could keep the audience within touching distance of the work in the spirit of the dialogues we had just had.

A nod to this.  An honouring.

Someone who might reveal more about their divisions, disrupt our thinking, shake things up.  A more contemporary voice.  One that reaches out and beyond them.

That was the grenade.

This unsettled me for while, but slowly I registered what it could mean and do potentially in terms of song and sound, not to mention the dynamic of the play itself.  Three is complex in a completely different way to two characters onstage, especially if they are all onstage all of the time.

And so here we are almost a year later.

Blessed with more Arts Council funding to enable us to return to the studio to think and play, and listen to sounds and instruments, a new voice is in the room and it is exciting.


Natalie McGrath
Writer of ‘Oxygen’ & ‘The Orchard’ for Dreadnought South West
Friday 6th May 2015

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