To mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, Kate Connelly interviews the people behind a new play about the suffragette hero

A tour of the new play Emily Wilding Davison: The one who threw herself under the horse begins on 4 June. In this interview the playwright Ros Connelly, director Kath Burlinson and actor Elizabeth Crarer discuss how and why they chose to devise a play about a suffragette hero, the continuing relevance of the suffragette movement and how artists today are defying the austerity cuts.

Why do you think it is important to produce a play about Emily Wilding Davison today?

Ros: One of the reasons I am fascinated by the suffragettes and think they are so important is because they demonstrate the heroism of ordinary people.  Emily Wilding Davison seems to be the supreme example of someone who under ordinary circumstances would have disappeared from history but, because of the particular circumstances of the time in which she lived and the strength of her beliefs, she ended up acting in a way which most of us would think is out of the ordinary.  I also think it is a very good time to be reminded about how people have used public protest in the past when the government doesn’t seem to be listening to the people.  I think there is a lot of modern relevance to what the suffragettes and Emily Davison did.  They saw people were not properly represented and they realised the government wouldn’t act unless people forced them to.

Kath: We need to continue to keep women’s history and political struggle in the forefront of people’s consciousness because the minute we forget it, it disappears.  Having studied the women’s movement in the nineteenth century, the early twentieth century and second wave feminism, I feel that we are now living in a very interesting time.  I am meeting women in their twenties who are very interested in these debates and it feels like things are on the move.  But I am acutely conscious of the losses that can happen in between periods of obvious activism.  For example, in the early 1940s my mum was an undergraduate at Bedford College where the College colours were those of the suffragettes: purple, green and white.  But my mother, who was born in 1926, did not know the significance of those colours until 6 months ago.  Although she was born so soon after those suffragette campaigns, and was a woman studying at a college that had been at the forefront of the movement for women’s higher education, that she did not know about that colour symbolism is symptomatic of what can happen.

I also hope this particular story of Emily Davison is going to open up a whole series of debates about activism that are very current: violent versus non-violent action; the reaction of the powers of the state to peaceful or non-peaceful protest; martyrdom; the fate of political prisoners.  All of these questions are as relevant today as they were then and all of them appear very directly in the play.

Lizzie: For me, it is about the need for role models.  You see the women who are in the public eye who we’re supposed to aspire to be like.  The women on billboards everywhere, we’re supposed to be want to be like them just on the basis of their bodies.  After our first Emily rehearsal I had a very strange experience when I went to Evensong before going to a waitressing job.  I was really moved by the service and then I started looking around the church at all the statues and representations of people and noticed they were all of men.  I looked at the flag stones dedicated to poets – also all men.  All the people on pedestals and plinths are men.  This is what we’re contending with: all men, and we have … the Virgin Mary, that’s it!  When I got to my waitressing job – a big event for someone at the top of the diamond business I saw there were a lot of plinths.  And onto the plinths stepped four supermodels adorned in jewels – elevated because of their thinness and their beauty.  It was disturbing and slightly sickening.  Instead, we need to resuscitate the memory of women who did incredible things and who are remembered for their virtue, ingenuity and humour.

For me personally Emily is a very interesting way of connecting to my own attitudes about politics.  For years I have felt a-political and I didn’t grow up connected to a political narrative and I was ashamed and a bit afraid of that.  Meeting Emily Davison, researching and understanding the way that she did things was a way into politics through art and culture.  Through empathy and imagination you can start to feel how politics and things in the wider world affect you.  It is very important to put it in a play because you can get other people to feel how it’s important rather than just think it, and therefore help them to connect with it. 

Emily Davison was one of the most mysterious of the suffragettes, rarely revealing her motives for her militant actions.  How did you find out about Emily and decide what motivated her?

Ros: We used the process of devising which entails lots of research before starting.  We tried as much as possible to find what Emily herself said and what others said about her.  The director created different scenarios for the actress to explore, sometimes using Emily’s words, sometimes starting with physicality, feeding in imagery from the time – the art of the time, the music and what was happening culturally.  There is very little of her private writings, so we tried to get through to the private person from her public writings.

Kath: Part of the discussion between Ros, Lizzie and me has been inventing our own Emily Davison – not fancifully without evidence, but there is an interpretive necessity.  We are creating our own woman who is not Emily Davison.  As every actor will create their own Hamlet, we are creating our own Emily Davison.

Lizzie: I don’t think I’ve decided anything yet and I hope I don’t.  It’s not my place to do so.  I can only work with the clues and have to keep exploring and discovering.  There is always more to find out.  Of course there are a few things that I feel are important; at the moment I keep coming back to Emily Davison’s relationship with her father, the moment of transition in her introduction to radical politics and her relationship to her faith.  But through this encounter I hope that Emily teaches me to extend the range of things that I consider to be important.  Part of my job as an artist is to question my own preconceptions.  We’re not producing the definitive version.  I am thrilled that there are two other plays and an opera coming about Emily.  This is really appropriate and necessary because there needs to be a conversation.

Kath, you have a background in political theatre.  Please could you tell us a bit about that.

I have a kind of double background.  I originally studied theatre at Hull University Drama Department where I took a course on political theatre taught by Anthony Minghella.  My awareness of sexual politics was fostered at Hull.  I have since founded a number of theatre companies.  Back in 1983 I co-founded a feminist cabaret double-act called Wild Girls.  In 1997 myself and Alison Goldie co-founded Weird Sisters, a two-woman theatre company.  In 2009 I founded the Authentic Artist Collective.  So for a long time I have been touring, devising and making theatre.  My other history is from 1989-1997 – teaching English and Drama at the University of Southampton.  During this time I taught mainly nineteenth century women’s writing, feminist and cultural theory and through this I developed a basic knowledge of how debates about the ‘Woman Question’ progressed in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  So my identity as a woman, an academic, a theatre-maker, director and performer has continually been informed by sexual/political debates.

Why did you choose to devise this piece and what difference do you feel devising makes?

Ros: I chose to devise this piece because I think it’s important to get the input of other people and not just to have one person’s view.  When you get the input from the writer, the director and actor at the same time in the creative process you get very different points of view and different ways into the material. This story is particularly appropriate for the devising process because there are so many important physical actions, not expressible through words – Deeds not Words!

Kath: My part in the triad is to focus on the theatricality of what it is we are presenting and physically representing of Emily Davison.  While Ros is responsible for the script, I’m responsible for making sure it works as a piece of theatre.  For example, the silence is as important as the words; the stillness is as important as the movement and the unspoken is as important as the spoken.

Lizzie: It’s an exciting way of working and exploring.  Working with the unknown, being prepared to allow yourself to listen to what might be there, rather than going in and knowing what to do.  You don’t know if you’ll find anything in common or be able to connect and that’s where genuinely new stuff comes from.

Feminist and radical theatre of the 1960s and 1970s was severely affected by the policies of the Thatcher government in the 1980s.  What effects do you feel the austerity cuts are having on the arts in Britain today?

Ros: I think they have affected a lot of small companies very badly – some of them have closed.  It squeezes the process of working on plays and will change the kind of plays that are put on.  If the focus is on recouping money in the box office, there is a danger of people just putting on ‘sure fire hits’ and not experimenting.  People are still experimenting, but it’s becoming harder.  We feel very lucky to have been partly supported by an Arts Council grant, Unite the Union and the Workers Educational Association (WEA) but a lot of time has to be spent searching around for money.  I’m aware there’s no inalienable right to money, but it’s important that the arts don’t suffer irreparably from the cuts.  Most people in this country are very proud of our artistic achievements and it would be a shame if we can’t produce work of real quality.

Kath: I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on feminist theatre since 1970 looking at the growth of small companies like Monstrous Regiment.  Throughout the 1970s there was a strong development of fringe theatre before the series of cuts in the 1980s.  But nothing ever really stops the impulse to create artistic representations of our lives.  Artists have had to be the most resourceful people on earth!  In my life there has never been a sense of any money [available for artists].  We feel very grateful to have got the Arts Council funding and that is a big responsibility to the audience.  The austerity cuts are awful in terms of our ability to build things, and create things in the long-term.  But it will never stop people producing artistic work.

Lizzie: I have two thoughts which are in conflict with each other.  Firstly, the effect of cuts means that money is scarce and therefore artistic endeavours have to justify themselves in financial terms before they have even been made.  Having to justify yourself in monetary terms is the opposite of the devising process that I described.  You can’t go in not knowing if you have to know how much it is going to cost.  Maria Miller [the Culture Secretary] recently made a statement on the monetary value of art.  Part of the role of the arts is to challenge this terminology, and this makes me question why we have to view everything in financial terms.  On the other hand, it is a great time for the arts and people working creatively to think about their role in making this very challenge.


June 2013 tour

Emily Wilding Davison: The one who threw herself under the horse

A new play by Ros Connelly, devised and directed by Kath Burlinson, devised and acted by Elizabeth Crarer

June 4 - St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, London, matinee 3pm and evening 7.30pm

June 5 - Mumford Theatre, Cambridge, 7.30pm 0845 196 2320

June 6 - Mill Studio at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, 8pm  01483 44 00 00

June 8 – Smallhythe Barn Theatre, Kent, 7pm  0844 249 1895

June 12 - People’s History Museum, Manchester, matinee 3pm [email protected]  0161 838 9190

June 17 & 18 – Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford Playhouse 7.30pm  01865 305 350

June 21 - Knebworth Village Hall, Hertfordshire, 7.30pm or [email protected]

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Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.