Epic in scale, huge in the staging, sure-handed in the storytelling, Rebecca Lenkiewicz's Her Naked Skin occupies the demanding space of the National's huge Olivier theatre with power and panache. Given (astonishingly) that this is the first play by a living female playwright in this showpiece venue since the National's opening in 1963, the subject of the play – the suffragettes – could not have been better chosen.
At its centre is one great tale, the relationship between two suffragettes: the upper class, middle-aged, fragile rebel, Celia Cain (Lesley Manville) and the spirited but uncertain young seamstress Eve Douglas (Jemima Rooper). Balancing that is the fraught relationship between Celia and her husband William (with whom she's unhappily had seven children). He (Adrian Rawlins) is the one male portrayed sympathetically in the play, the one who suggests that men too are being damaged by this grossly gender-imbalanced Edwardian society.
But the truly memorable scenes are those at the heart of the suffragette struggle – the women, joyous in the determination to seize public space with (then) shocking demonstrations, determinedly brave facing the shock of prison life, delicately supportive of each other when the pressure becomes too much. The force-feeding scene – hinted at in the first act and consummated in the second – left the audience gasping, and more than one covering their eyes in shock.
Light relief, in this almost Shakespearean, multistranded structure, comes from the political scenes, in Downing Street and Westminster – the only real-life characters, Herbert Asquith and his liberal cabinet, being, fittingly, the Hal characters – with the buffoons playing silly, drink-sodden games.
Clearly no expense has been spared in this elaborate production, but director Howard Davies is surehanded in his use of the elaborate set, with the clanging gates and grim grills of Holloway prison always looming, foreground or background, and effective use of video footage (some of the best I've seen in a staging). Although of course, with its initial shocking start – the death of Emily Wilding Davison under the hooves of the King's horse in the Derby – he had amazing material to work with.
The huge cast is assured and balanced, although there's no doubt where attention remains focused: on Manville and Rooper, who convey the powerful emotions that wrack their relationship with strength and sensitivity. Notable also is the performance of Susan Engel as Florence Boorman, the matriarchal Pakhurst character here (Lenkiewicz having probably wisely decided to avoid hot historical controversies by not portraying those controversial leaders on stage) – her comic touch is particularly effective.
This is a grand evening of theatre, in the very best senses – and one that will certainly have impact on many of its audience. (I was pleased to see in the cheap seats many more young women than you'd usually expect at the National; hopefully they all left with, at the minimum, a determination to use the vote that their great-grandmothers fought so hard for.)
Yet it could, perhaps, have been even more. Sure, the personal is political and all of that, but did an intensely political story of women's politics have to be centred around a messy lesbian love affair? Could it not have been centred instead on the political tale, the tale of personal struggle, the sacrifice and the determination?
But you come back to the shocking fact that no living woman playwright has been here before, and conclude that probably, even in the context of 21st century realpolitik, it couldn't. Such a play, no matter how brilliant, would more likely be found in some tiny, cramped fringe venue rather to the south of here. Lenkiewicz has done what she had to do, and done it very well indeed.