Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Oxygen

Natalie McGrath
Dreadnought South West
Orange Tree Theatre

Oxygen at the Orange Tree Theatre

A hundred years ago, groups of women started off from eight distant points around the country to march to London and promote their demand for Votes for Women.

This was the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage, organised by the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The Times reported 50,000 attending the final rally in Hyde Park, probably an under-estimate, and many more will have joined to pilgrimage to walk part of the way as routes passed through their district—though they met opposition on their journey too.

This production marks that event and follows the women from the South-Western, West of England and the Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire Federations who were assigned the route from Land’s End to London. Like the original 15 women who set off from the end of Cornwall at noon on 19 June 1913, the company left Land’s End a century later and have performed this play, in whole or part, at 31 of the locations where their predecessors halted.

Oxygen—the title comes from a Suffrage song—follows the incidents of their journey, with their speech-making calling for an end to child poverty, people trafficking and sweated labour as well as for votes for women as part of universal suffrage—including an incident when they were stoned by locals and their baggage cart pushed in a river, but it is not just hectoring public meetings but a personal picture of individual situations.

The NUWSS was made up of non-militants, that was their policy, and while one sister decides to join the pilgrimage, for another that’s not enough. She follows Mrs Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union, which supports direct action, and, through the play, the actions of the NUWSS with their red white and green sashes run in parallel with incidents involving the militant sister and her colleagues with their purple, white and green so the argument for both forms of action is presented.

A century later, we may have universal suffrage but how many of the women’s other aims have actually been achieved? The call for action still has an urgency today, but here what could be a chronicle of political polemic is made personal and moving by the commitment and sincerity of the five actors: Rebecca Hulbert, Michelle Ridings, Rachel Rose Reid, Stevie Thompson and Carolyn Tomkinson, whether dealing with forced feeding and the “Cat and Mouse Act” or the problems of unwanted pregnancy at a time when the law saw women’s bodies as male property.

I do not know what form the staging has taken at other venues, but at the Orange Tree the in-the-round format certainly helped to make the audience become one with this band of women instead of feeling preached at and the songs which punctuate the play lift the spirits.

Although the play is very explicit on the different attitudes towards violent action of the suffragists of NUWWS and the suffragettes of WSPU, it doesn’t make clear just how much more radical the pacific organisation was in asking for universal suffrage. In 1913, not all men had the vote; the 1832 Reform Act had granted the franchise only to men with certain property qualifications. Those qualifications were modified later in the century but still existed and perhaps only one third of British men had the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

The WSPU’s demand was for a similar limited suffrage only. As one critic put it not “Votes for Women!” but “Votes for Ladies!” In Britain It was not until 1918, when women over 28 with property got the vote along WSPU lines, that all men over 21 got the vote and women had to wait another decade before they got an equal extension of the franchise that the NUWSS campaigners in Oxygen demand.

Next Sunday, 26 July, this modern pilgrimage will culminate in Hyde Park with a picnic on the exact centenary.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton