Rhondda Rips It Up

Emma Jenkins and Elena Langer
Welsh National Opera
Forum Theatre, Malvern

Exuberant, provocative, ripping up the rule books on proper political and social behaviour—there’s much to be said for the achievements of suffragette Margaret Haig Thomas and for this idiosyncratic musical attempt to celebrate her life, 100 years after (some) women first got the vote.

Thomas had a short spell in gaol for setting fire to a letterbox, fought for decades for her right to sit in the House of Lords as Lady Rhondda, left her husband for her lesbian lover, and most importantly founded the influential feminist magazine Time and Tide.

It was a highly successful, if not spectacular, career, thus creating a dramatic challenge to which writer Emma Jenkins, who conceived the work, has responded with verve and imagination. Thus Thomas’s survival on the torpedoed Lusitania is represented by an appeal to female fellow-passengers to “cast off your corset for good” before swimming for their lives.

The libretto cleverly combines the world of the bazaar and the bizarre, the suffragettes hesitating whether to enjoy their fondant fancies while colleagues hunger-strike in gaol, until Thomas receives a parcel of books about sex. Much excitement ensues behind their market stalls—sadly involving the inevitable bananas and figs—until this coitus is interrupted by news of Emily Davison’s death at the Derby.

The cabaret-style opera is narrated by Lesley Garrett as a male impersonator Emcee. It’s not a great role vocally, but at least sex is never far away, most particularly in the outrageous old Harry Roy song “My girl’s pussy”.

The suffragettes march to hymns and end with a rousing chorus of no surrender, but the most successful musical moments are quieter ones—Madeleine Shaw’s Margaret addressing a letter to her father from prison and Anitra Blaxhall as her lover Helen reciting an Aphra Behn poem to the accompaniment of accordion and cello.

Overall, however, Elena Langer’s score for the 10-piece band is uninspired at best, at times even awkward, and the all-female cast makes matters worse, especially in the usually excellent WNO chorus that sounds unbalanced here. Choral writing is seldom good at narrative, particularly for high voices, and a passage about the notorious Cat and Mouse Act—by which suffragettes freed from gaol were to be immediately re-arrested—is quite unintelligible. The clunky chorus-line choreography is no more successful.

It’s disappointing too that every male-impersonated character, Prime Minister Asquith, Churchill and others, is a caricature, as if their female antagonists lacked the courage to take on their real-life opponents, which they most certainly did not.

Dare I say it after 100 years of continuing struggle for women’s rights? It would have been good to have a few men around.

Colin Davison