Summer 2013 marks the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison’s death after falling under the King’s horse at Epsom Derby. Unsurprisingly for an historical figure with a secure place on the school curriculum, this anniversary has sparked renewed interest in the suffragette who is usually just one step behind the Pankhursts on the name-check list.
Surprisingly, for a figure we thought we knew everything about, 2013 has also drawn attention to some crucial evidence that disputes the typical martyrdom myth. We have learnt that Davidson had a return ticket from Epson in her coat pocket – OK, so a return is usually almost the same price as a single, but I still wouldn’t buy one if I was heading somewhere to die – and slowed-down camera footage of her drive forward onto the track suggests she was attempting to attach a Votes for Women sash to the horse, not sacrifice herself under it.
The true intentions of Davison we will, of course, never know, and I do think – given the pervasiveness of the idea of her as a suicide – that the recent publicising of challenging research and the newly questioning attitude towards her are both worthwhile. However, this continued borderline-obsession with the King’s horse and the suffragette always serves to ignore the many thousands of other women who supported women’s suffrage and, whilst not quite giving their lives for it, did devote considerable time and effort to campaigning for it.
Oxygen, a new play by Natalie McGrath, which is currently touring the South of England, significantly expands this usually narrow focus and, for this reason and many others, it is a very welcome addition to both popular scholarship on the movement and the current schedule of a lot of small theatres.
McGrath’s play is about a group of Cornish women who left the South West to join a march of thousands, known as ‘the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage’, across the South of England to Hyde Park. Perhaps because the tour of the play follows the same route itself and is augmented with ‘waymarker events’ that will be ‘responding to the centenary of the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage and celebrating women’s voices and issues today’, the authenticity of the ensemble’s passion for women’s suffrage and feminism is palpably detected. The hot tears that eek out of eyes so obviously come from genuinely believing in each word of the script and feeling a connection with the characters and people of that era.
This authenticity of emotion was probably what made this show far transcend being a small-stage costume drama. In fact, it far transcended both large-stage costume dramas and TV costume dramas. I will compare it to the most recent televised version of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, despite perhaps not being qualified to do so, being as I only grumbled through one part of it before finding, in particular, the suffragette character, Valentine Wannop, an insufferably simpering show-off topped with anachronistic blonde highlights. Contrastingly, the actresses in Oxygen are – without reverting to sounding like a Dove advert – refreshingly diverse in looks and ages and perceptively cast in roles subtly tweaked into being historically realistic.
It was, quite simply, a proper joy to watch and re-awakened in me a memory of the first time I went to vote – for Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral elections – and felt an almost absurd amount of pride at having been able to do so. The small Primary School-aged version of me that I still carry around just under my ribs, and who once added Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst to her little list of ‘Cool Women’, kept grinning for the whole long day.
Read the Exeunt interview with Natalie McGrath