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When hunger-striking WSPU activists described forced feeding as an “outrage,” they were specifically likening this ordeal to rape. Forced feeding was not so much a medical procedure as a form of extrajudicial torture, and in this regard an apparently “Liberal” government was no longer singing from its own hymn sheet. The cack-handed doctors would pump treacle into their victim’s stomach through a filthy rubber tube, although they often inserted the tube through the nose and its contents could even end up in the lungs. This was a painful and distressing business, and one would have to be almost superhuman to agree to it. Yet some women submitted to forced feeding over two hundred times, offering their own bodies as incontrovertible proof that liberty and death were superior to living under tyranny.

The Pankhursts have been traditionally portrayed as bourgeois adventurers, somewhat unfairly because they were hardly wealthy nor unaccustomed to hard graft. Claire Burlington‘s play “Nourish,” which is being aired for the Fringe at Paradise in the Vault, portrays Sylvia Pankhurst (Dominique Jones) as just another suffragette, or as one in solidarity with a whole prison of starving sisters. We may prefer to view her as more than the exemplary suffragette – as, say, the socialist black sheep of the Pankhurst family or as the lover of Keir Hardie – but this play locks her both literally and figuratively into her prison cell, choosing to compare her only to a prison wardress who is both an exploited working woman and an upholder of the exploitative system.

Sally Connelly’s performance as the ferocious wardress is initially a little iffy, with her angrily popping eyes and Albert Steptoe accent, but whether she changes or we get used to her, this matronly figure gradually acquires a greater depth. “Nourish” is a hagiographical account of Pankhurst and it does not require a very sophisticated performance from Jones. One wishes that this abrupt play explored rather more of Pankhurst’s character and story. The play avoids erecting an empty heroic statue, although by embellishing it with some deft writing rather than chipping away at the pedestal and exposing human failings. There are some particularly striking scenes when the wardress is swept off her feet by an investigative journalist and she tours her prison at midnight, watching the inmates sleep.

With its Kafkaesque storyline and creepy venue (Paradise in the Vault seems to be lost in a warren of cobwebbed cellars and Victorian brothels) this play achieves an atmosphere of impressive Gothic horror. The forced feeding is unsparingly but neatly portrayed. One uninterested in feminist history may nevertheless find themselves enjoying this play, but it also succeeds in bringing the history powerfully back to life, and demonstrating that this country once possessed political figures whose furious idealism was only equalled by their courage.

[All proceeds from ticket sales go to (I think) Women for Women. Tychy previously reviewed June Purvis’ biography of Emmeline Pankhurst. Ed.]

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