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Scene from a performance of "Sylvia". Photo: Lynx Theatre and Poetry

An updated version of Jacqueline Mulhallen’s one-woman play is currently on tour

Lynx Theatre and Poetry has launched a national tour of their updated version of SYLVIA, a one-woman play about Sylvia Pankhurst, written and performed by Jacqueline Mulhallen. The original production was described by the Times Educational Supplement as “a gripping reminder of our own – very recent – past”.

This new production maintains the unique style, combining Jacqueline’s performance with a continuous counterpoint of 250 slides, including almost all Sylvia’s extant paintings; specially commissioned photographs of Manchester, London and Venice, where Sylvia studied art; and archive images of the people, places and events of her early life - described as “history is brought to life” (Worcester Evening News). An artist, Sylvia Pankhurst was drawn into political activity in support of her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, and sister, Christabel, who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), known as the suffragettes, but then broke with them and established her own organisation in London’s East End.

Over the last 20 years, there have been new biographies being published, notably Katherine Connelly’s Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire (Pluto 2013), and a 2013 exhibition of her art at Tate Britain, but 30 years ago, when tens of thousands of people saw SYLVIA for the first time, she was very much a forgotten Pankhurst. Now her significance as both artist and political leader has been re-assessed. Her paintings of working women are important both as a record of women’s working lives 100 years ago and as the work of a woman artist at a time when few women were acknowledged as such. In 1991 Lynx discovered more of these paintings in a 1908 edition of the London Magazine which included reproductions of seven, only one of which was still known about. In particular, it included pictures of pit brow lassies and women chain and nail makers, as well as fisher lassies and women working in a cotton mill and shoe factory. Now Lynx is touring to museums which relate to the women’s trades. The painting tour gave Sylvia a very clear idea of the working conditions and what women were doing to change them.

Lynx decided to revive their play in 2015 and the first performance at the Crossroads Women’s Centre in Camden was sold out two days beforehand. Two subsequent performances, at a museum and at the Wortley Hall trades union centre, also drew full houses, and so Lynx decided to launch a national tour. The Arts Council decided not to give us any funding for the strong tour we had booked, but we went ahead anyway, and have found trade unionists lobbying their branches to support us.

One thing has changed dramatically since we last toured. Over 100 schools saw the original production, often booking the play to be performed in a classroom or assembly hall. The Museum of Labour History was forced to turn away 12 schools when we were booked for a series of performances there. This time round museums are struggling to get school parties in, and the schools themselves seem not to be able to book the play - perhaps because of timetabling restrictions. This is a shame. In 1992, a young woman from a  Bengali background came to a public performance two years after we had performed at her school in Bow. She had been inspired by the play to resist her parent’s pressure to be an accountant, and she wanted to tell us that she was at art school instead. This is just one example of how school students told us that seeing the play had changed their ideas.

Instead Sylvia has been booked by trades councils, museums, some arts centres, Bolton socialist club and Newcastle Counterfire. The enthusiasm we are registering in our potential audience suggests that they are thirsting for the story of Sylvia Pankhurst building a working class women’s movement in East London in opposition to the elitist organisation led by her mother and sister. One trade unionist told us that it is particularly important to know of women’s history in view of the rise of Trump.

There is hardly any political theatre today as compared with the 1970s, when many brilliant groups - brilliant artistically and politically – toured a wide range of venues (See http://www.unfinishedhistories.com). Not only have the groups disappeared, but when we looked up the venues we ourselves performed at between 1987 and 1992, they had almost all either gone or no longer put on theatre, just films and stand-up acts.

Forty years of neo-liberalism, led by Margaret Thatcher, whose first act was to cut funding to touring theatre groups, has destroyed the theatre in just the same way as it has destroyed education and health. We are determined to get art back to the working class who create it and who love it, and we firmly believe that it is worth the struggle – and lack of pay – to defy those who want to destroy our culture.

An old lady in Bethnal Green told us how important the play was to her. “If it weren' t for people like you, we would sit at home with nothing to do all alone and then we’d get ill.” Four unions and two trades councils are supporting this tour, and other unions are helping us towards a new play. They can see the importance of plays by, for, and about working people and their fight for their rights.   Independent thought in working people is as dangerous today as when Sylvia forced the Prime Minister to see a deputation of working women in 1914, and we hope we can help by bringing this leader to a new generation.

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