Review of Her Naked Skin
It’s 1913 and the women of London have been fighting for rights for what seems like forever. Sadly, their efforts seem to be getting them nowhere except Holloway Prison, where they continue to fight by going on hunger strikes. And even in the midst of this war, everyday life manages to exist: at the center of the play, Lady Celia Cain tries to endure her marriage to her childhood best friend for whom she no longer loves, and considers that perhaps a more erotic and questionable relationship with fellow suffragette Eve Douglas, might be worth fighting for.
Her Naked Skin, by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is yet another of my London finds. I’m a sucker for stories about women’s suffrage, and this one did not disappoint. The play starts with a bang, by showing Emily Wilding Davison readying herself for what seems to be a rally. As soon as she walks out the door, however, a film starts on an on-stage screen, showing the grainy footage of Wilding Davison’s death when she stepped in front of racing horses and is trampled. Quickly switching between Celia’s house, Eve’s small flat, gentleman’s clubs, the House of Commons, and the various rooms of Holloway Prison, this script works as tirelessly as the women whose stories are being told.
The two main characters are Lady Celia Cain and her young friend Eve Douglas. The women come from very different backgrounds: Celia continued her comfortable childhood life by marrying an old friend, with whom she has seven children. Eve is a seamstress with a tragic background. But Celia’s life isn’t as perfect as it seems. Her passion for her husband William peaked when they were children, and it’s obvious to him. Towards the end of the play, after being taunted about his wife by the men at the club, an inebriated William snaps at Celia that he knows that she doesn’t enjoy sex with him because she cries every time afterward. It is obvious that Celia’s lack of love for William hurts both of them, but William more deeply. Celia, who reveals that she’s had affairs before, has turned her attentions to Eve. After a history of sexual abuse, Eve gladly accepts Celia’s genuine love, however unexpected it is. But every relationship, conventional or no, must mature and develop, and such a change doesn’t always happen for the better. For Eve, twenty years Celia’s junior, her first experience with passion and attachment is a confusing and tumultuous one. “Love is just fear, I suppose,” Celia tells her. “Masquerading as a fever. Then you explore each other and suddenly you have license to become totally pedestrian. And ultimately abusive.”
There is a lot of debate about the heroism of the women who participated in these movements. While many commend them for their deeds, especially as they did eventually earn women the vote, just as many scorn the women for their extremist actions: breaking windows, going on hunger strikes, burning down buildings, and bombing railway stations aren’t supported by everyone, no matter their view on women’s rights. I fall into the former category, as does Lenkiewicz, if this play is any indication. While these women did go to questionable lengths to gain their rights, they were driven to those actions because nothing else was working.
The playwright handles every scene with skill and care, but also with unflinching honesty. Besides her look at relationships between both men and women (romantic and no), Lenkiewicz also had no choice but to include the prison force feedings. This practice was used on both English and American women who were imprisoned for suffrage movements, and it is truly appalling. Involving forcing a rubber tube down a woman’s throat through either the nose or mouth (usually requiring her to be held down by multiple people and the use of a steel gag to keep the woman’s mouth open) the method has often been compared and equalized to rape. The scene that covers Eve’s force feeding reads as one, and it is terrifying and graphic. After painfully removing twenty inches of tubing from Eve’s throat, the doctor slaps Eve across the face and tells her, “You must not be so stubborn.”
Whether one agrees that the suffragists’ actions were commendable or not, one must admit that their story is worth telling. And so Lenkiewicz does, with enviable flair.
GREY: Damn miracle the gal’s lasted this long.
ASQUITH: Bugger. There’ll be a major funeral, no?
BIRRELL: It’ll be women as far as the eye can see.
ASQUITH: Which should sound like heaven, but it doesn’t.
POTTER: What do you want?
CELIA: What I want is a crepe-de-chine nightgown and glass slippers. What I’m asking for are undergarments that don’t look and smell like someone died in them.
CELIA: File is an anagram of life, isn’t it?
KLEIN: You were placed in the hospital ward the last time you were incarcerated?
CELIA: My window loked out onto the girls in the exercise yard. Two of them were always laughing together. One was about eighteen, the other perhaps thirty. The girl’s hair kept blowing into her face and eyes and her companion kept brushing it away from her because the girl needed to keep her hands warm in her pockets. The friend understood that.
KLEIN: Is that what you would like? To be understood?
CELIA: To be loved, you mean?
KLEIN: Is that your definition of understanding?
CELIA: What I would really like is… is a cigarette.
KLEIN: So. I ask myself, what can we do for this new woman we see before us?
CELIA: Very little, I expect.
WILLIAM: Would you stop all of this, Celia? For me?
CELIA: You said you’d never ask me to.
WILLIAM: That was before it was dangerous.
CELIA: First of all you try and pronounce me lunatic. Now you want me to be a no-show.
WILLIAM: Better a no-show than a dead one, don’t you think? Who do you actually think you represent?
CELIA: You’re not twenty-one.
FLORENCE: And I have no desire to be such an age. All I remember of being twenty-one is crying like a loon.
CELIA: Desire is very strange. One shouldn’t try to pin it down.
WILLIAM: Where have you been? We’ve all been worried bloody sick. Telephoning the police stations. Hospitals.
WILLIAM: Is that it? ‘Sorry?’
CELIA: Please don’t go into the sulks. I’ve rather had enough of all that.
WILLIAM: I thought you might be dead.
CELIA: I probably was.