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5 September 2018

Sylvia shows the Pankhursts were stubborn, ruthless, hypocritical – and successful

The Old Vic’s new musical depicts fallible women – rather than one-dimensional feminist heroines.

By Helen Lewis

Look, just don’t mention Hamilton. I have mentioned it once, but I have definitely not got away with it. “We’ve been going for 16 years as a company, this is our sixth full-scale show and we’ve always had diverse casts,” says Kate Prince, creator of a new hip-hop musical about the Suffragettes, called Sylvia. “The idea of being on the coat-tails of Hamilton, it annoys me.”

There’s a reason that everyone reaches for the comparison, though. Just like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s global blockbuster about the American Revolution, Sylvia retells a historical story full of white people using a multi-racial cast and a musical genre associated with African-Americans. But where Hamilton’s casting was itself a political act – trying to reclaim American Waspy history for a country where white people will soon be in the minority – the mission of Sylvia is different. Prince wants to bring in young audiences, and her company ZooNation puts on shows in the musical genres that most appeal to them. “We work within the genre of hip-hop music, so what do [critics] expect? A Caucasian cast?”

I’m meeting Prince and co-writer Priya Parmar in the Old Vic’s rehearsal space in south London, where we talk about early 20th-century politics as they try to fit in a lunch of dim sum and tea. Any new musical is a big, risky undertaking; a few days after my visit, the show’s opening night at the Old Vic is delayed by a week to 17 September to allow for more previews. Today, the cast are not yet in costume, but reference images dot the walls. I’m delighted to see Outkast’s André 3000, in high-waisted trousers and braces, is up there alongside more standard Edwardian looks.

There was a small amount of fuss when the casting for Sylvia was announced, with Beverley Knight defending her role as the matriarch Emmeline by bringing up “the hundreds of years of white actors playing Othello, Cleopatra, any number of Asian characters”. Prince adds: “Beverley’s take on this, is: it is acting. I’m acting. I don’t think Keir Hardie sang and danced his speeches.”

But that’s just a few grumpers on the internet. I suspect that the Old Vic’s audiences will be entirely unbothered by the diverse cast. What they might struggle with, however, is the complexity and distinct lack of saintliness of the Pankhursts. I recently watched Emilia at the Globe, which turned a drama about Shakespeare’s mistress and muse into something approaching a political rally on behalf of feminism. Emilia Bassano, thought to be the “dark lady” of the sonnets, was reconfigured as a sassy, feisty, badass (all the clichés) mixed-race woman, telling Big Willy Shakes where to get off and providing a living rebuke to the anti-immigration sentiments voiced by fellow courtiers. The audience loved it. I didn’t.

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The Pankhursts don’t lend themselves to that sort of treatment, because so much more about them survives – memoirs, letters, newspaper reports – and very little of it is flattering. Emmeline and her favourite daughter Christabel were instinctive authoritarians, and Christabel in particular demanded not just absolute loyalty but hero-worship. I went to see some of her original letters in the University of East Anglia library earlier this year and they are testament to the strength of her personality: forceful, looping handwriting and screeds about the imminent arrival of Jesus. (She moved to America in the 1920s and got into God in a big way.) “In our show, you have Christabel saying, ‘Here’s the Women’s Social and Political Union, where women have the right to an opinion.’ And at the same time, she tries to stop Sylvia giving quotes to the press,” says Prince.

To anyone asking how the Suffragettes achieved so much in so little time, and with such small numbers – the militant campaign lasted less than a decade, and there were around 1,500 women involved in it – this ruthlessness and focus is one answer. Emmeline and Christabel ejected anyone who showed a lack of enthusiasm over militant tactics from the WSPU, including their loyal (and financially generous) allies the Pethick-Lawrences – even though Fred Pethick-Lawrence went to prison for conspiracy over window-smashing in 1912.

The most high-profile casualties of the Pankhurst purge were the family’s two younger daughters, Adela and Sylvia. Unlike her mother and Christabel, Sylvia was left-wing (and almost certainly having an affair with Keir Hardie, the first ever Labour MP) and her activism had its roots among the working-class women in London’s East End. After an almighty row over the wider political allegiance of the WSPU, she was chucked out, and Adela went too – she was given £20 and a boat ticket to Australia and never saw Emmeline or her sisters again.

The musical Sylvia starts when the girls’ father, Richard, is still alive and takes the story through to 1928, when universal suffrage was achieved and Emmeline died. After the war, the women’s lives diverged and the family was never reconciled.

Adela became a communist and then a supporter of the fascist organisation Australia First. Emmeline had been an ardent supporter of the First World War, suspending the militant campaign for its duration, and in 1927 was selected as a Conservative parliamentary candidate. By contrast, Sylvia opposed the war and stayed on the left, having a baby with an Italian anarchist and moving to Ethiopia.

All of which gives a strong hint why the musical is called Sylvia rather than Emmeline or Christabel. “She’s the most relatable to a modern, liberal-minded audience, which most theatregoers probably are,” says Prince. Nonetheless, the writers are not trying to portray Sylvia as a saint: “Sylvia was fighting for women, but sleeping with another woman’s husband.” Depicting fallible women rather than one-dimensional feminist heroines? Truly revolutionary.

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This article appears in the 05 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The hard man of the Left