Working on submarines and practising professional contact sports are pretty much the only things that women are still banned from doing. In the eyes of centuries of lawmakers, (cis) women’s bodies are precious fragile vessels for reproductive organs that must be carefully protected, ready for obligatory future use. Joy Wilkinson’s play is set in an underground fight club where these rules are broken – and it’s set in the real, but little known world of Victorian-era female boxing.
There’s a mini glut of performance exploring female aggression: like Femme Feral’s THERESAMAYSMACKDOWN or the twist into bloody ferality of Dance Nation or The Wolves, a story of an all-female football team that opens later this month. And it’s easy to see its lure: it’s got this tang of illicitness and feminist transgression to it, this sheen of sweaty rebellion.
The Sweet Science of Bruising is furiously violent, at points. But it’s also surprisingly, aptly sweet. There’s an occasional quaintness to the lives of the four nineteenth century women it follows: a nurse who longs to train as a doctor, an Irish sex worker, a miserable middle-class wife and a bona-fide aspiring prize fighter. Their stories collide and clash up against each other in a play that sits in a strange space, tonally: it’s half realism, half exhilarating wish-fulfulment, Victorian novel-style pastiche, which sometimes shies away from the coarseness and hidden power dynamics inherent in its world.
To talk about the exhilarating stuff first: this show is wonderfully pacy and complex. It’s hungry to explore boxing as it intersects with pretty much every other issue in these women’s lives, from motherhood to ambition to oppression to escape. Director Kirsty Patrick Ward has turned the stage into a dimly-lit arena that’s teeming with life, reeling from drawing room to sawdust-covered training ring to bustling Victorian street. And in the hands of fight and movement director Alison de Burgh, the boxing itself is thrilling: Jessica Regan, Sophie Bleasdale, Kemi-Bo Jacobs and Fiona Skinner create a sense of real danger as they punch out their frustrations with the restrictive world outside the ring.
Very little is known, beyond some enigmatic photographs, about the ordinary lives of Victorian female boxers – although their professional paths are traced in Dr Vanessa Toulmin’s book, A Fair Fight. So Wilkinson has imagined four possible backstories that are as different from each other as it’s possible to be. The cynic in me wasn’t totally convinced by Anna’s path from bored, browbeaten lady wife to secret-prizefighter-by-night. Or Violet’s quest to use her fists to raise money to train as a doctor. And Professor Charlie Sharp, the man who oversees the whole spectacle, seems too thoroughly nice to be an entrepreneur who – according to medical wisdom of the time – was putting women in serious physical danger.
Polly Stokes feels more real, and Fiona Skinner’s convincing, bluff performance takes this character from rough-and-ready outsider to champion to married exile from the ring, poignantly resigned to her husband’s jealousy. But elsewhere, the lightness of this story’s tone makes some of its grimmer moments feel a little tacked on – especially the domestic abuse in Anna’s storyline, and the campy high gothic of Matty’s endurance for punishment.
Polly’s story works best because, arguably, womens’ boxing’s status as a fairground sideshow and illicit evening entertainment meant that it would have been practised by women on the margins of society – as a way of life, not an act of middle-class rebellion. And her discomfort with being asked to wear a dress to fight points to something bigger that’s not explored here: both the potential for queerness in female violence, and the idea that the fighting female body is simultaneously liberated, and vulnerable to male objectification and fetishisation. But if The Sweet Science of Bruising sidesteps the question of the male gaze, it’s in the service of something else. A liberating, transgressive act of historical revisionism that’s furiously energetic enough to get a whole audience’s blood pumping.
The Sweet Science of Bruising is on at Southwark Playhouse until 27th October. More info and tickets here.