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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Her Naked Skin
Olivier Theatre       2008

Rebecca Lenkiewicz's play about the suffragettes of a century ago opens with the dramatic film footage of the 1913 Epsom Derby, where Emily Wilding Davidson threw herself in front of the King's horse.

The sound of galloping horses and the commentator's voice vibrate throughout the auditorium together with the martyrdom act, gripping the audience's attention instantaneously and sustaining the tension for the next two and half hours.

Like a wide lens camera capturing the landscape and then panning in on a scene, Lenkiewicz unfolds the suffragettes' historical struggle with the spotlight falling on two representative figures, Lady Celia Cain (Lesley Manville) and the working class Eve (Jemima Rooper).

One of the playwright's major points is that the movement questioned not only voting rights but a wide range of social and gender issues - the play's title implies more than a touch of sexuality.

By developing a sexual attraction between the two central characters, Lenkiewicz argues that the breaking of sexual boundaries was part of the suffragettes' political, social and personal struggle.

The personal relationship between the aristocrat trapped in a loveless marriage and the factory worker discovering the power of female bonding is presented sympathetically, giving a human face to the larger political drama.

The gap between the suffragettes' blurring of social class lines and the status quo is dramatised when both women are imprisoned and Lady Celia receives her husband (Adrian Rawlins) in gaol with a bottle of wine and other treats while the hunger-striking factory worker Eve is force-fed through a rubber tube.

Howard Davies' direction impressively uses the large stage to explore the subject at different levels. While the women are presented as strong and courageous, the conventionality of the male characters, be they Members of Parliament or businessmen, is underlined by dressing them in anonymous grey.

All aspects of the production, especially the strong performances by the two central actresses, make the play succeed both as political statement and personal drama.

Rivka Jacobson

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Review of Her Naked Skin - National Theatre 2008

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