Women of Aktion

Mick Martin
Bent Architect
The Studio, York Theatre Royal

The in-joking subtitle of Women of Aktion, Or “Oh, What a Lovely Revolution” tells you a lot about the show. Joan Littlewood’s early, pre-Theatre Workshop days are our starting point here—specifically her meeting with German Expressionist playwright Ernst Toller, which led to the première staging of his play Draw the Fires in Manchester in 1935.

When first we encounter Toller, played by Rachael Gill-Davis in a multi-roling cast, he is accompanied by an invisible blonde lady-friend who, according to Littlewood’s diaries, never spoke and vanishes quickly from the action. As the script jauntily points out, this is handy given the small cast size of three—but it’s also a comment on the side-lining and indeed erasure of the women in the stories Toller was telling.

This move is characteristic of the production, which employs knowing, jokey Brechtian self-awareness and historical tales to make trenchant points about the marginalisation of women’s voices today as well as in yesteryear.

In Littlewood and Toller, writer Mick Martin has chosen an apt pair through which to dramatise the struggle. Littlewood is played with withering Cockney impatience by Francesca Anderson and, as the company shows us early rehearsals for the piece, Joan interrupts to demand of Toller an explanation for the absence of women. Never mind that the Kiel Uprising depicted in the play-within-a-play was one launched by the men of the German Navy, she argues: it was stoked by the starving and ignored women back home, and the subsequent German Revolution was furthered by powerful political action by women such as Rosa Luxemburg.

Here the key players are Gertrud Voelcker and Martha Riedl. These young women—a union office worker and a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl—are reimagined by the writer, using hitherto overlooked verbatim testimony. Claire-Marie Seddon portrays Voelcker, and a host of other roles, with a playfully intelligent spark shared by all of the cast.

They play out the action on a minimal studio stage, adorned only with hand-drawn back-cloths and a couple of microphones. Simple costume additions signify the various historical figures of the story, with Littlewood’s iconic cap and Toller’s bright neckerchief immediately identifying them.

The cast also harmonise beautifully on a range of songs—some parodying the music of the Weimar era, others more contemporary. A loop pedal is put to occasional but strong effect in conjuring the sounds of crowds of protestors. So, from the slenderest of means, the cast deliver a range of nested narrative strands, all focusing on the rehabilitation of women’s stories in the face of their erasure by men.

These narrative strands add up over the 70-minute running time to an impressionistic wave of resistance. Women’s progress is social progress, as we are reminded.

The quick-witted script and lightness of touch of the three excellent performers, directed by Jude Wright, produce an energised show which opens up a number of interesting questions. At times the focus is blurred, in part due to the alternative-world-play-within-a-play narrative, and some of the Brechtian parody and Toller text is overplayed, but on the whole this is an informative and entertaining show.

Some further background reading on the women behind the stories would have added to the occasion, as names and dates whipped past us so speedily that it was hard really to focus on these now-invisible women; it feels like this piece might be only the beginning of an effort to make them seen again.

Mark Smith