"How far would you go?"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 23/05/18

‘The Cause’, written by Natalie McGrath and directed by Josie Sutcliffe, perfectly demonstrates the enduring truth that whatever venture originally unites people can all too easily result in deep and sometimes bitter division. This is true of planning a village fete; rearing a child; running a political party. A group might want the same result, but disagree profoundly about how to achieve it.

Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett are rightly remembered as women fighting for women’s suffrage. They are also remembered for the rift arising from their passionately held beliefs about what was effective. Emmeline’s miltancy, which embraced arson, provoked imprisonment and endured force-feeding, gave rise to the Suffragette movement; Millicent’s moderation, action within the law, the use of its mechanisms and those of politics, had peace at its heart, inspiring the Suffragists. Two women, divided by a common cause.

Michelle Ridings (Emmeline) and Ruth Mitchell (Millicent) first breathed life into our memories and ideas about these two leaders in 2015, when Dreadnought South West toured ‘The Orchard’ as a work-in-progress. Audience responses helped the project develop into ‘The Cause’, with a new character, the Trumpet, played by Remi-Oriogun-Williams.

Natalie McGrath imagined an orchard; a place suffused with hope and beauty, where both women could take refuge from the struggle for suffrage; a safe place where they could explore their differences and express the rage that drove them both, but in such very different directions. Natalie’s script, set in 1913, after the Suffragists made their biggest and most public stand, at the Great Pilgrimage, conjured up a no-woman’s land in a destructive war (presaging the terrible conflict to come). With poetic precision, visceral rage, and intellectual rigour, she laid bare the question all of us have to ask ourselves. ‘How far would you go for what you believe in?’

‘The Cause’ also explores the impact of a lifetime of campaigning on both women. Michelle Ridings and Ruth Mitchell’s performances are powerful, authentic and extraordinary. Subtle costume design by Beth de Tisi and hair styling emphasise the women’s differences and similarities. Emmeline’s apparently traditional dress (with its unnerving echoes of a straitjacket) incorporated more liberated culottes; Millicent’s dark, sober suit had bright red buttons suggesting her skilfully concealed rage; her passion subjugated to intellect and strategy.

Nicci Wonnacott’s beautiful set evoked the orchard; the safe place; the refuge, shown in subtle shades of purple, green and white. Projections also showed Emmeline's prison cell and the conflicts raging in the minds of both women, giving us glimpses of their thoughts and terrors on the sharp, dangerous edges of insanity and despair.

I really liked the new character, the Trumpet, with her youth, exuberance and optimism. Remi-Oriogun-Williams linked the past with the present, reminding us how much remains undone and how vulnerable is our progress. Her vibrant energy contrasted with two older women, in it for the long haul, but struggling with age, the consequences in Emmeline’s case of forced-feeding and imprisonment and the rigours of life in the public eye. Her presence gives an extra layer of accessibility, particularly for younger audiences. My companions and I wondered about making the present day conflicts more explicit, but there is a power in leaving the audience to recognise and address the parallels and divergences. Sometimes the Trumpet reprised what we had just seen; for some audiences that would be valuable reinforcement; for others unnecessary repetition. A couple of interjections detracted from the tension between Emmeline and Millicent as they demonstrated the way of the warrior and the way of the diplomat. Is one more important than the other? Both have bright beginnings but one can lead to the darkness of martyrdom; the other to suffocation by procedure and minutiae.

Remembering the original work as an intense conversation between two people, I asked myself, ‘Is this really a radio play?’ Having seen it in its original, minimalist form, I know the script and performances are strong enough to be stripped to the bare bones; a performance that could work for radio, the smallest village hall, a public park. I can love both approaches and appreciated the tight economy of the original, but sitting in Exeter’s Phoenix, listening to Sarah Moody’s sensitive, pitch perfect music, seeing three excellent performers give their all to a terrific script in a beautifully evoked setting, I’m glad to have experienced the full-scale performance of ‘The Cause’.

Learn more about the work of Dreadnought South West here: http://dreadnoughtsouthwest.org.uk/

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