The first new play by a living woman writer on the Olivier stage is, suitably enough, one about suffragettes. But Howard Davies’s production of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Her Naked Skin – the final offering in this year’s Travelex £10 season - is as much about personal as political emancipation; the central Sapphic love story of a well-connected lawyer’s wife, Lady Celia Cain (Lesley Manville), and a Limehouse seamstress, Eve Douglas (Jemima Rooper), is a sort of serious Edwardian version of Prisoner: Cell Block H.
The two women meet while peeling potatoes in Holloway prison, a great grey clanking cage in Rob Howell’s imposing design where the regular inmates – “a lunatic fringe of frigid women who crave attention,” in the words of the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith (David Beames) – are hosed down, banged up and force-fed in between breaking windows and practising their shooting in Epping Forest.
The year is 1913, and the first image of the play is of a suffragette pinning on her sash to the music of “Oh, you beautiful doll.” Next thing, we see several re-runs of that blurry film of Emily Wilding Davison throwing herself in front of the king’s horse at the Derby. The idea that these politics of protest to secure the vote are risible is established when Celia is told that she won’t be convicted if the doctor declares that her mind is “fragile.”
In the House of Commons, only Keir Hardie (Robert Willox) raises his voice against the barbarity of forced feeding, a procedure enacted with grisly realism towards the end of the play. By this time Celia, whose seven children are mysteriously invisible throughout, has reached breaking point in her marriage – this recriminatory bust-up between Celia and William (Adrian Rawlins) is a fine, raw piece of writing – and has thought seriously about having sex with a waiter (Gerard Monaco) in the Ritz Hotel.
Davies’s production combines an epic sweep with a personal intensity. In spite of a few jarring anachronisms of speech, the play might have been one of those lost Edwardian plays lately revived so tellingly at the Orange Tree. Lesley Manville and Jemima Rooper give outstanding performances, the one mixing brisk sensuality with steely determination, the other as careless, insolent and sultry as a Pre-Raphaelite painting.
And there is fine support in a large cast from Susan Engel as a Mrs Pankhurst-style no-nonsense rabble-rouser and Ken Bones as Augustine Birrell, chief secretary for Ireland in Asquith’s cabinet, and a conciliatory Jewish doctor who mistrusts Freud.