The problem, for me, with setting a love story against a backdrop of major historical events is that history can easily overwhelm the romance. It is also a problem if you leave gaping holes in the history which have to be (only partially) filled by the programme notes and if the love story doesn’t feel strong enough.
The love story felt as if it needed a smaller more intimate space to make it feel intense. It also needed considerably more danger and risk and not just be the momentary fancy of a bored aristo.
I was confused by the mix of factual and fictional characters. Were any of the main characters (other than the politicians) based on real people? They didn’t feel that real, which actually and oddly made me wonder if they were based on real people. You can arguably get away with a bit of sketchiness using real people but fake people need to be fully rounded and with motivations and back-stories.
I wanted more from and about the men. They seemed, at times, to be brutish caricatures, even when spouting lines that their historical counterparts had said. I wanted more motivation and reason from the men (if it comes to that the women too). With 20-20 hindsight and even a few years after the events of the play, the male anti-suffrage ideas were shown to be clearly wrong-headed and stupid but at the time they were, presumably, sincerely held and effectively argued. I don’t think that the author wanted to go there but I felt its absence.
I didn’t feel that I got to know why some of the main characters were Suffragettes. Obviously they were doing what they believed to be right and the aim of universal suffrage was right, but I didn’t feel what was driving them. I understand that one of the reasons for commissioning this play was the ninetieth anniversary of the suffragette movement and perhaps it should have looked a little at the present. There are people, in the world today, who would happily refuse women the vote and many other rights, claiming, as the Victorians and Edwardians did before them, that they are doing it to protect the dignity and honour of women. They place woman-kind on a pedestal but ignore the exploitation of women who don’t meet their standards. Perhaps they put them on a pedestal so that they not in the way and can be ignored. I didn’t see any modern echoes in this play; given its subject matter I think there should have been.
In the end (as the programme acknowledges) it wasn’t the Suffragettes or the more reasonable Suffragists that brought about votes for women but a Great War that managed to shatter Britain’s Victorian and Edwardian self-delusions.
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