As a landmark anniversary of the suffragette movement nears, Sarah Freeman reports on a new theatre production about to take to the streets of York to mark the fight for equality.
A couple of years ago Barbara Marten had an idea. York Theatre Royal was looking for suggestions for a season of work putting women centre stage and, with the centenary of the successful fight for women’s votes approaching, the actress, best known for playing Casualty’s Eve Montgomery, reckoned that a play inspired by the suffragettes of York was a no-brainer. The only problem was she couldn’t find any.
“I had a pretty dispiriting afternoon in the Borthwick Institute at the University of York,” says Barbara, who has lived in the city for the last 12 years. “There were stacks of testimonies, accounts, speeches and evidence of our ancestors’ courage, strength of character, eloquence, brilliant campaign ideas and dedication, but not one record of a single York suffragette.
“I was just about to leave when I spotted a slim white pamphlet called Militant Suffragettes in York. It had been written by Krista Cowman and inside I found the sketches of these brilliant women who played a really pivotal role in the fight for women’s suffrage.”
Barbara took the stories of Violet Key Jones, from Fulford, Annie Seymour Pearson, from Heworth, Mrs Coultate, from Southbank, and Lily Lenton, from Doncaster, who was taken in and hidden from the police in the city, back to the theatre.
It was quickly agreed that she was on to something and having drafted in playwright Bridget Foreman, the seeds of another major community production in York were sown.
The city has form when it comes to staging these epic events. Four years ago, Slung Low’s Blood and Chocolate told the story of the First World War through the Rowntree’s factory and two years ago the Mystery Plays, which were performed on a specially created stage in York Minster, also featured a large community cast.
“I was really impressed by Blood and Chocolate,” says Barbara. “It really brought the streets of York to life. When I thought about the suffragettes and those women who found a voice and suddenly became a force to be reckoned with, the image in my head was of droves of women in the streets, marching, with banners, sandwich boards, a brass band playing, singing – a great sassy gathering of girls being seen and making themselves heard.”
When Everything is Possible opens next week, much of Barbara’s vision will be realised. There will be crowds of protesting women, there will most definitely be banners and there will be singing.
“The only thing we haven’t got is a brass band, but I’ll live with that,” she says. “I had been working down in London and only came back up two weeks ago so I have been playing catch up a little, but it’s really wonderful to see it take shape. It feels like we are doing something quite special.
“I am playing Annie Seymour, the woman I read about in that pamphlet all those months ago. She ran a safe house in York and like the rest of the suffragettes she showed immense physical courage by turning her home into a safe house. It’s a real privilege to bring her back to life a century on.”
Everything is Possible is York Theatre Royal’s sixth large-scale community production and is co-produced with Pilot Theatre. Marshalling the 170-strong community cast is a team effort, but at the helm is Pilot’s Katie Posner.
“It sounds daunting, but we are pretty used to it now,” she says. “When you have a production with a large community cast it doesn’t just work by numbers alone, you have to make sure that they have a meaningful role. What’s really great about this show is that there are 67 speaking roles. Every woman has a voice which given the subject of the piece felt important.”
Many of the cast and production team, who run everything from front of house to costume making, are veterans of York’s large-scale theatrical events, but 40 per cent of this year’s company are newcomers. “It’s really great to have some fresh faces,” says Katie. “While a production of this size and shape inevitably has its challenges, the reward comes on opening night, it really is a show which is more than the sum of its parts.”
Each performance of Everything is Possible will begin outside on the streets of York before moving into the auditorium of York Theatre Royal.
“I am passionate about this story,” says Bridget of seeing her words transfer from the page to the stage. “I am passionate about the courage displayed by women who fought for a place at the political table, about the vision they held on to of a better, more equal way of living alongside men, about their hope for a transformed world for their daughters and granddaughters.
“I’m incredibly moved by the fact that Annie lived just around the corner from me, that she walked the same streets, that she – like me – had a husband and children and a comfortable life, but she was prepared to risk all of that to fight for women whose lives were far from comfortable, and that in so doing, she helped to win the freedoms that I enjoy.
“If that’s not worth celebrating, and honouring, I don’t know what is. And she also inspires me to challenge injustices and discrimination today, because it’s a battle that’s far from over.”
■ Everything Is Possible runs from June 20 to July 1. For tickets call 01904 623568, or go yorktheatreroyal.co.uk