Her Naked Skin

Two suffragettes begin a torrid love affair in Shattered Globe’s new production.

Photograph: Kevin Viol
Her Naked Skin

“I didn’t start out thinking I was going to write a lesbian love affair in 1913 England,” British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz says by phone. “I thought, I just want to write a suffragette play.” She’s referring to Her Naked Skin, the historical drama that premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2008 (the first play by a female writer to appear on its main stage). This week, Shattered Globe Theatre mounts the play’s Chicago debut at Stage 773.

Her Naked Skin opens with the tragedy of Emily Wilding Davison, a real-life suffragette who made headlines when she stepped in front of the king’s horse during the Epsom Derby while holding a banner for the Women’s Social and Political Union; Davison sustained serious injuries that led to her death several days later (the jockey was also injured and, years later, committed suicide). The play then homes in on the lives of a group of militant suffragettes who cause trouble by smashing store windows, for example, and end up in and out of London’s Holloway Prison, where they endure gruesome forced feedings, among other hardships. “It was the first time I wrote a play and felt responsible for the material I was writing,” says Lenkiewicz, whose previous works (The Night Season, Shoreditch Madonna) focus on dysfunctional relationships not unlike her own, she confesses. “When I was reading firsthand accounts about the forced feedings, that’s what made me want to write the play. It reminded me of modern-day torture, but it’s not so long ago and it’s in Britain and it’s being done to women, which I found very shocking.”

At the heart of the drama is Celia Cain, an upper-class, tart-tongued suffragette whose husband is sympathetic to the movement even as the House of Commons and his friends at the club largely dismiss it. In prison, Celia begins a torrid affair with Eve, a working-class beauty 20 years her junior. Lenkiewicz says she was drawn to the human story, although not necessarily one revolving around lesbianism. “I think the issues in the play are about freedom, and that applies to love as well as politics,” she says. “How free are we to love or not? How free are we within ourselves, and how free are we within a relationship, and how free are we within a society?”

The same-sex story line rankled some critics who complained it distracted from the historical narrative, as well as activists who didn’t think a lesbian relationship was within the straight playwright’s purview. “The play inevitably got a few knives into it from various factions, but that’s always going to happen when you write something that people feel is their territory,” Lenkiewicz says. “The negative press I got was almost always about using the ingredients too cozily or comfortably to make a storm, but I wasn’t ever trying to do that. I was just following my nose, really.”

Queer viewers, especially women, are more likely to be drawn to its focus on strong female characters (like fiery septuagenarian suffragette Florence Boorman) and its emphasis on women’s empowerment. “I would hope that everything I write would be a feminism piece,” Lenkiewicz says. “We’re in a seemingly sort of feminist-permissive society, but I think girls in some ways are just as constrained sexually. Women have to be sexy, beautiful, brilliant—you know, the whole MTV generation. It’s not a perfect world for women yet even in Britain, let alone other countries.”

Her Naked Skin begins previews Tuesday 1 and opens May 4.

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