The world is a sea of shit for women. It may be a sliding scale – some of us occasionally get our shoes wet, some are drowning and choking on it every single day – but none of us live on dry land. It does no harm, then, in these increasingly beleaguered times, to be reminded that it wasn’t so long ago that things were even worse.
Abbott Dance Theatre’s Deeds Not Words was created to mark the 2018 centenary of (some) women being granted the right to vote in the UK. Choreographed by the company’s Artistic Director Kristin Kelly-Abbott, the touring production also includes young dancers from local schools (in this case, North Shields’ St. Cuthbert’s), and community choirs and cast (North East Socialist Singers, Canny Chanters, Custom Voices and Let’s Sing).
The mix of polished professional and enthusiastic amateur talent on stage occasionally jars tonally and the production can feel a little uneven in places, though it’s hard not to be charmed by a bunch of pensioners and schoolkids giving it their all. The children make a fine job of an occasionally tricky routine that (we are informed) they only learned in a couple of days, and the emotional resonance of the choirs is undeniable.
The core of the show is much darker and hard-hitting, as a talented cast of dancers deftly act out the array of indignities women faced in daily life – the drudgery, powerlessness and abuse that were commonplace, both in and out of the home. As a dance dunce, I likely missed much that was going on, but even to my uniformed eyes, there was no mistaking the power of some of the set pieces – the scenes featuring imprisoned and force fed women were particularly tough to watch, a stark reminder of the price paid for rights so many of us now take for granted.
Jessica Dannheisser and Breifne Holohan’s evocative score is effective, as is Tina Frank’s sparse set, a backdrop of packing crates and tables that are rearranged throughout to create a factory, a kitchen, a racecourse or a prison, and the wider cast ably perform their roles.
Interspersed with pro-suffrage speeches, the production isn’t afraid to sacrifice historical veracity for contemporary relevance: the protesters wave a Save the NHS banner decked out in Suffragette colours, while the choir sings loudly about the need for free sanitary products. It’s this anger that makes this not just a commemoration, but a call to arms, a recognition that in a world that seems intent on creating its own A Handmaid’s Tale/ Brave New World crossover, there is still plenty of work to be done. In an era when so many ‘can’t be bothered to vote’ or ‘don’t see the point’ of elections, it forces us to remember that women suffered and died to get the right to vote, and it’s our duty to their memory not to squander it.
The world is an avalanche of shit for women, and those who came before us dug with their fingers to set themselves free, and their struggle gave us better tools than they ever had themselves. Given the mountains we still have to dig through, only a fool gives her shovel away.
Deeds Not Words was at Northern Stage on 21 May. More info here.