Woman on Fire looks at the story of the most militant of Suffragettes from the perspective of one of the fiercest of all. The unsung Edith Rigby from Preston was prepared to riot, bomb and even plan the murder of the Prime Minister to gain the vote for women.
John Woudberg’s script is full of rhythm and rhyme, and Claire Moore’s performance is a tour de force - delivered with a verve that suits an independent-minded Edith, brimming with righteous zeal. She reads Mary Wollstonecraft at school, and openly disdains the nice ladies of Preston; it’s a feeling that is certainly returned, as she is scolded and shunned for adopting a son and playing with him in the streets. There is a sense of a mischievous personality hardening into relentless determination as she gets involved with the suffragette movement (though it still comes out in a nice line in put-downs for hecklers).
Rigby is a somewhat haughty character, feeling superior to anyone not as committed as her. We see that not only in her contempt for the peaceful suffragists - “knitting for the vote” - but in her sense of betrayal by leading figures such as Christabel Pankhurst, who went into exile in Paris. On the other hand, she hero-worships Emily Wilding Davison, a woman who makes the ultimate sacrifice. While the aloofness is intentional, I do wonder if Edith’s voice has to be so posh? I accept that this is probably historically accurate, but it now suggests privilege, and is one of several things in the play which distances us from her.
The staging, with a poster-covered wall on one side and a genteel park bench on the other, contrasts the two sides of her life, while a strong soundtrack mixes recorded speeches with breaking glass and explosions. But Woman on Fire does fall prey to didacticism. It is a chronological run through Edith’s life and the suffragette movement, crammed with dates and facts; and though I understand the urge to get across all the information, there is much that most of the audience will already know.
Caught between the history of the suffragette movement the personality of Edith Rigby, I would have preferred more of the latter to come through. It is empathy, after all, that enables a connection with an audience. It is in there - in her suffering while on hunger strike, in prison and away from her child - but because we’d heard so much about imprisonment, cat and mouse, hunger strikes and force feeding, it had lost its punch for me.
I’m loath to say this about a play all about women, but amongst the parade of facts about Edith, what humanises the story most is her diffident husband - who gravitates from insisting that she stop her antics, to becoming a staunch supporter. But despite my own concerns over whether Woman on Fire really connects, some in the audience were on their feet at the end. Moore’s performance is certainly worthy of applause.