Votes for Women by Elizabeth Robins

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Drama on 3 on BBC Radio 3

BBC Radio 3, 15 September 2013
The first suffragette play opened in April 1907, by Robins, an American actor who emigrated after her husband committed suicide by jumping into Boston's Charles River wearing full theatrical armour.  Robins herself was quiet a feisty character; when Bernard Shaw made a pass at her, she pulled a gun on him.  She played the first Hedda Gabler in Britain in 1891, and composed Votes for Women, "a dramatic tract in three acts."
Superficially Marian Nancarrow's production came across as a well-made play, with an easily definable beginning, middle and an end.  The characters spoke articulately, only rarely revealing their emotions (especially in the first act).  They seemed typical examples of what might be described as Edwardian bourgeoisie, living in a world conveniently insulated from life's daily realities.
The production really came alive in Act II, which dramatized a suffragette rally in Trafalgar Square.  In the original stage production forty actors were used; through an ingenious use of sound effects coupled with overlapping voices Nancarrow achieved a similar dramatic effect, communicating both the optimism of the movement as well as its frustrations, as it tried to make headway in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society.  We had to admire their persistence as well as their strength of character; to continue fighting for their cause was no easy task.
The play's heroine Vida Lavering (Zoe Tapper) came across as a hard-headed idealist, whose shady past is gradually revealed as the action unfolds. It might be tempting to see her feminism as a reaction to the way she had been treated by her ex-lover; but in Lavering's performance Vida came across as a principled person, someone who put personal issues aside in her determination to achieve her ends.
While the story included familiar plot-elements characteristic of melodrama - the fallen woman, seduction, abortion - the action did not seem forced in any way.  On the contrary, we had to admire Vida's sincerity - so much so that she managed to transform her ex-lover Geoffrey Stoner (Samuel West) to change his views about the feminist movement.  Would that the Conservative MPs of these days could be as principled as he obviously was.