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Review Round-up: Naked Ambition at the National

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Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Suffragette drama Her Naked Skin, the final production in the Travelex season and the first new play written by a woman to premiere on the National’s 100-seat Olivier stage, opened last week (31 July 2008, previews from 24 July).

Set in Holloway prison at the height of the Suffragette movement, Her Naked Skin concerns inmate Lady Celia Cain, whose encounter with a fellow prisoner, young seamstress Eve Douglas, leads her on an erotic but dangerous journey of discovery. It includes graphic depictions of force-feeding and self-harming, which caused a strong reaction at last Thursday\'s premiere (See Photos, 1 Aug 2008).

Directed by Howard Davies, the cast features Lesley Manville, whose previous credits at the National include The Alchemist and His Dark Materials as Lady Celia Cain, while Jemima Rooper plays her lover Eve. The large ensemble also includes Susan Engel, Adrian Rawlins, Ken Bones and Dermot Kerrigan. Her Naked Skin joins Melly Still’s production of The Revenger\'s Tragedy in rep, and finishes on 24 September 2008.

Critics were impressed by Davies “gripping” and “even-handed” production, which many felt had “epic” proportions. The cast were generally praised for their “outstanding performances”, and although leading ladies Manville and Rooper were both warmly applauded for their work, it was supporting actress Susan Engel who stole much of the limelight, being hailed by one critic as the “supporting performer of the year”. Some concern was expressed over an apparent “fluffy grasp of the politics” of the era, but generally critics appreciated Lenkiewicz’s ability to express the political through the personal in a “deeply affecting” play. Designer Rob Howell also fared well, receiving much praise for his “magnificent” stage designs.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “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 … is as much about personal as political emancipation; the central Sapphic love story … is a sort of serious Edwardian version of Prisoner: Cell Block H … 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.”

  • Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph – “Over the course of a gripping two and a half hours, impeccably paced by director Howard Davies and presented using a swirling array of interlocking grilles, Lenkiewicz shows us ordinary women doing extraordinary things … Yet Lenkiewicz also singles out men who defied the received chauvinism of their sex, neatly encapsulated in a scoffing Cabinet discussion conducted in the wake of the Derby debacle and presided over by Asquith … Celia Cain is a wholly plausible fictional creation made sympathetic flesh by Lesley Manville in a performance of beautifully brittle assurance. Through the furtive, giddy love that develops between this erudite, eloquent woman and Jemima Rooper\'s working-class Eve, who meet at Holloway, Her Naked Skin marries epic public concerns with the most intimate dilemmas. Celia\'s rapture cannot help but lead to rupture - both with her desperate husband (Adrian Rawlins, superb) and polite society. The show is bursting with high-definition performances steeped in the sensibilities and eccentricities of pre-war England: Susan Engel, as Florence, particularly embodies the formidable crankiness of the blue-stocking brigade. This is a big play with a big heart and I recommend it with a matching warmth. Lenkiewicz is making history here and, in so doing, demonstrating that she\'s got a great future.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian(four stars) – “It is shocking to think that Rebecca Lenkiewicz\'s play is the first full-length work by a woman to be seen on the Olivier stage. But Lenkiewicz makes up for lost time by exploring the hunger for political and personal emancipation that fuelled the suffragette movement in 1913; and, though one can niggle about this and that, her play colonises this daunting space with bravura confidence … The play is also excitingly staged. Rob Howell has created a magnificent design in which a series of interlocking steel frames constantly reform to remind us of the entrapment experienced by Edwardian women. The set is matched by the propulsive urgency of Howard Davies\' production, which moves easily between the intimate and the epic, and the acting is faultless. Lesley Manville brilliantly conveys the inherent contradictions of Celia, whose vision of sexual and political freedom is compromised by her attachment to the benefits of her class. Jemima Rooper lends her lover the right surly sensuality, and, in the supporting performance of the year, Susan Engel sweeps all before her as a silver-haired militant buoyed up by a vision of the future. But that symbolises Lenkiewicz\'s play, which plants a defiant feminist flag on the Olivier stage.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars)– \"…a deeply affecting and rousing drama … Skillfully balancing the wide-angled and the intimate, Her Naked Skin shows the struggle in its own right and as it impinges on the erotic affair between two suffragettes – a married toff, Lady Celia Cain (Lesley Manville), and a young seamstress, Eve Douglas (Jemima Rooper). They meet in Holloway … A scene of the forcible feeding of a hunger striker – illegal and perilous – is as upsetting as the blinding of Gloucester in Lear. Not that this even-handed play is unfair to men or blind to tensions in the movement. Imperious and complicated, Manville\'s brilliantly acted Lady Celia has grown out of her marriage to her childhood sweetheart. But she refuses to acknowledge that, after 15 years of supporting her in the cause, her husband is suffering from emotional neglect. Susan Engel is superb as Florence Boorman, a blue-stocking campaigner of great spirit and fervour, if occasionally a little tough on human weakness. It\'s through her that the sometimes very funny script expresses its caustic wit. When a prison doctor complains that one of his colleagues was horse-whipped by some of her women, she retorts: ‘I hope he paid them the going rate.’ It\'s humbling to be alerted to the courage and sacrifice of such forgotten women. This play is a salutary reminder for both sexes in our apathetic age that the hard-won vote can be seen as not just a democratic right but a democratic duty.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “…Miss Lenkiewicz\'s ingenious idea is to portray the cross-class, lesbian affair that breaks out over those potatoes, between married Celia and Miss Rooper\'s memorably smitten, vulnerable Eve, as a microcosm of the feminists\' campaign to defy the rules of society. In charting the rise and not very well explained fall of the romance, its symptoms confined to perfunctory kissing and hands under skirts in parkland together with a brief bedroom scene, the author skates over the fact of Celia\'s five children … Despite its fluffy grasp of the politics of 1914 Her Naked Skin does offer a vivid impression of Edwardian society in embattled crisis. Rob Howell\'s set is dominated by two tiers of prison cages, emblems of a society trying to put a tight hold on freedom and women regarded as captives in gaol or out of it. The bleakly humorous Holloway scenes are absolutely superb, suggesting the infinite ways in which the suffragettes were harassed and humiliated by dumb authority ... Initially the play tingles with political vitality in Howard Davies\'s epic, musically atmospheric production … Susan Engel, in tremendous, witty form as Florence Boorman, the elderly, unmarried suffragette leader, offers haughty, triumphant antidotes to official agents of authority … Miss Manville\'s taut, tense Celia finally emerges from conflicts over politics and sex, Her Naked Skin’s big loser, having failed to pin her colours to any mast.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “…Manville gives a terrific performance as a restless, independent and rather cold aristo. You can\'t altogether blame her husband, Adrian Rawlins\'s William, for hitting the bottle or for taking increasingly desperate measures to prevent her serial imprisonment and force-feeding. Indeed, you applaud him when he risks social death by hitting one of the clubmen and politicians who mock Celia, taunt the suffragettes and joke that Davison ‘probably lost her way, like my mother’. Did sophisticated men really reduce themselves to ugly, callous caricatures in their opposition to the suffragettes? Well, perhaps. Myself, I\'d have liked to have seen still more of the crusading women who are so boldly led by Susan Engel\'s indomitable old Florence Boorman and heard more of their internal arguments and quarrels. You wouldn\'t know from this play that the Pankhurst daughters ended up at each other\'s ideological throats. But whether Howard Davies\' production is taking us to angry public meetings or a dauntingly ritualistic prison or Parliament itself, it often generates the epic excitement the subject merits.”

  • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (three stars) – “Bizarrely, this is the first time an original play by a woman has ever been done on the main stage of the National Theatre. It’s enough to make the suffragette heroines of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s drama chuck themselves in front of racehorses all over again … Lenkiewicz is good at dramatising the bitter – and shamefully ill-remembered – struggle for universal suffrage. Designer Rob Howell’s grim backdrop of wire-mesh cages provides the cells for the prison episodes, but his adaptable set also turns neatly into a Cabinet room where Prime Minister Herbert Asquith tries to spin Davison’s death to his best advantage … Less successful is the human drama at the centre … It doesn’t help that Howard Davies’s production … plays down the social divide that could bring their relationship to life … And while Rooper is a talented young actress with a wonderfully expressive face … her main expression seems to be discomfort at having to snog a co-star old enough to be her mother. The only member of the cast having real fun seems to be Susan Engel, as a ferocious old jail-bird with all the best lines.”

    - by Kate Jackson & Theo Bosanquet

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