Reclaiming history: Dreadnought South West’s The Cause

Michelle Ridings, Remi Oriogun-Williams and Ruth Mitchell in The Cause. Photo: Jim Wileman

How far would you go to win your rights? Break the law? Risk your health? Risk others’ safety? The Cause – the latest production from Dreadnought South West – wrestles with just these questions.

Over the course of 100 intense minutes, The Cause imagines a fractious meeting between two historic figures – Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and Suffragist Millicent Fawcett – each occupying an opposite side of the play’s central dilemma: is peaceful protest or direct action the appropriate response to injustice?

In one corner is law-abiding Millicent Fawcett (Ruth Mitchell): robust, dignified, elegant, fighting her own inner battle with the frustration borne of a lifetime opposing the system from within. In the other, fire-raising, hunger-striking Emmeline Pankhurst (Michelle Ridings): frail, bloodshot, trembling, her white Edwardian dress more like a Bedlam straightjacket so close to psychological breakdown is the actor’s portrayal – indeed the Pankhurst of the play’s promotional photographs is almost unrecognisable from the ghost-like apparition of its winter tour, as if the months of inhabiting this spectral reimagining has physically infused the actor’s body.

Language of war abounds. Suffragettes are ‘soldiers’, ‘warriors’. And yet the most explosive scene sees the peaceable Fawcett refuse to pick up the stone of direct action, unleashing instead a battery of repetitive word-fire that sends the audience discomfited into the interval.

If the play hinges around a single central question – whether it is better to pursue justice through legitimate or non-legitimate means – then it is testament to the writing that The Cause explores argument and counter-argument with no hint of repetition. There are so many subtle shifts in each character’s sense of their own position that I was transfixed, as each fresh nuance was opened up and interrogated from multiple angles – personal, political, rational, emotional.

The focus on these historic figures in their later years feels like a masterstroke. Far beyond youthful militancy, the physical and psychological cost of decades of activism is writ large on these characters’ bodies. If their sacrifices are evident – and they are – their aging bodies ask important questions about what radicalism can mean in later life.

Returning home afterwards, coincidently on the night of the US midterm elections, to news of a ‘wave of women’ winning seats in the House of Representatives, the importance of this play, and this still-young story, was manifest. It seems unthinkable that the fight for universal suffrage is not taught in UK schools. Compelling, intense and personal, The Cause restores this lost history: we should be proud of our foremothers.

 

The Cause is written by Natalie McGrath and directed by Josie Sutcliffe.

Autumn/Winter tour dates for The Cause