Rebel Women has lessons to teach
Created and directed by Joan Bryans. A Vital Spark production. At the Jericho Arts Centre on Friday, January 3. Continues until January 12
There are lessons to be learned from Rebel Women. Unfortunately, they feel like lessons.
Rebel Women is verbatim theatre, which means that creator and director Joan Bryans has assembled the text from existing sources; in recounting the history of suffragettes in England, Bryans claims in the program, “The words you hear are almost 100% their own words.”
Some of the information that emerges is both compelling and effectively theatricalized. Rebel Women makes it clear, for instance, that widespread hunger strikes, in which women risked death to gain the right to vote, were courageous, and that force-feeding is a form of torture. The hunger-strike material is by far the most successful in the evening. The occasional detail—including the scalding death of an infant in a poorhouse—is striking. And some of the political manoeuvring—including suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst’s final, victorious blow, which I’ll let you discover for yourself—is intriguing.
Still, Act 1 of Rebel Women is dull. For long sections, actors stand and deliver informative text. Scenes feel more like containers for historical data than dynamic personal interactions. Dramatically, the act repeats the same note: suffragettes are consistently excluded and stonewalled by the all-male body politic.
Act 2 improves considerably because momentum increases and the stakes get higher: more and more women commit to hunger strikes and Pankhurst, though a determined pacifist, encourages attacks on property as a form of protest: suffragettes cut telephone and telegraph wires, deface art, and set empty buildings ablaze.
Still, the evening’s primary currency is information rather than intimate revelations. No relationships develop. And the suffragettes are relentlessly heroic, there’s no internecine conflict within the movement.
The large cast varies widely in skill level. I particularly enjoyed the authority and commitment of Andrea Ware’s Mary Richardson, Barbara Kozicki’s Annie Kenney, and Lindsay Nelson’s Christabel Pankhurst.
It appalls me that so many bright young women and men I know disavow the term feminist; the bad guys have won the public-relations war, successfully associating feminism with man-hating. The history of first-wave feminism (the suffragettes) is worth sharing. But if you can’t find material that consistently brings this story to compelling theatrical life through action and relationships, perhaps verbatim theatre is not the best way to tell it.