‘Churchill was on the wrong side of this issue’: the Suffragette story gets a hip-hop spin

'Deeds not words': the Suffragette battle in Sylvia at the Old Vic - Manuel Harlan
'Deeds not words': the Suffragette battle in Sylvia at the Old Vic - Manuel Harlan

‘People are calling Sylvia ‘a Suffragette musical’,” says Kate Prince, whose all-singing Pankhurst saga is about to hit the stage. “But, at its heart, it’s the story of a close, loving family who fall out over politics. Emmeline and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, were united in their feminism, but they had very different views on other subjects and those differences eventually tore them apart.”

Taking a break from rehearsals backstage at the Old Vic in London – with blasts of Sylvia’s urgent, hip-hop score reverberating through the wall – the 49-year-old writer, director and choreographer explains that she began working on the musical “when the #MeToo movement and Brexit were hot topics. They were dividing families. My own parents voted different ways on Europe. It was hard…”

Prince, who founded London-based dance company ZooNation in 2002, admits that she “left school without a political bone in my body. All I ever wanted to do was dance and watch Janet Jackson on MTV!” Even now, although most of her dance-theatre shows have a political dimension – from the plight of refugees in Sting’s Message in a Bottle (2020) to questions of gender identity in 2011’s Some Like It Hip Hop – Prince admits, “I get quite scared about having opinions in today’s climate. You’re always one step away from somebody accusing you of something or misconstruing what you’ve said…”

“…Whereas I was raised as a political animal,” grins the show’s star, soul singer Beverley Knight, who has joined us backstage. “My parents encouraged me to ask questions and stick my head above the parapet. I had a faith-based upbringing in Wolverhampton. But my mum and dad were thinkers. They often disagreed with what they heard from the pulpit. And as a black girl in Wolverhampton, there were places I knew it wasn’t safe for me to go in the late 1980s and 1990s: the pub, the football. I remember having major fights with girls at school about apartheid in my teens.”

Knight – whose mighty vocals make her Emmeline a steamrolling force – tells me: “My wider family fell out over Brexit, too. Then, across the country, people were divided over how we should respond to the pandemic. Now we’ve got the strikes and the cost of living crisis. If they were alive today, I’m pretty sure the Pank­hursts would have been on different sides of those arguments, too.”

Beverley Knight as Emmeline Pankhurst and Sharon Rose as Sylvia Pankhurst in Sylvia at the Old Vic - Manuel Harlan
Beverley Knight as Emmeline Pankhurst and Sharon Rose as Sylvia Pankhurst in Sylvia at the Old Vic - Manuel Harlan

Sylvia was the second of Emmeline Pankhurst’s three daughters. Her older sister, Christabel, was their mother’s more biddable favourite, while Sylvia rebelled against maternal discipline. Emmeline beat her daughter for refusing porridge and tied her to a bedpost if she wouldn’t swallow cod-liver oil. “Before I was three years of age,” she wrote, “I had convinced [my mother] of the uselessness of beating her children, because… I had made her feel that she might kill me before I would give way.”

At odds with her mother, Sylvia idolised her father. Dr Richard Pankhurst was a barrister who campaigned for free speech, universal free education and women’s right to vote. “Why are women so patient?” he once asked. “Why don’t you force us to give you the vote? Why don’t you scratch our eyes out?”

But Richard died in ­Sylvia’s arms in 1898, when she was just 16, leaving Emmeline as the head of the household. Fed up that 50 years of reasoned argument hadn’t advanced the cause for female suffrage, she founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her daughters in 1903. The group’s commitment to “deeds not words” meant more than the odd smashed shop window.

“If men use explosives and bombs for their own purpose they call it war,” wrote Christabel in 1913, “and the throwing of a bomb that destroys other people is then described as a glorious and heroic deed. Why should a woman not make use of the same weapons as men? It is not only war we have declared. We are fighting for a revolution!”

The company of Sylvia at the Old Vic - Manuel Harlan
The company of Sylvia at the Old Vic - Manuel Harlan

In rehearsal, I watch Prince choreo­graph an explosion and Emily Wilding Davison throwing herself under King George V’s horse at the 1913 Derby. “If you change the law to prevent strikes and peaceful protest, what have people got left?” Prince asks. She points to the fact that Sylvia’s granddaughter, Helen Pankhurst, “has been saying that the action taken by environmental protesters like Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil reminds her of what the WSPU did. People get irritated by people gluing themselves to trains and motorways, but the establishment hasn’t been listening to reasonable arguments, has it? I suspect history will judge them more kindly than this week’s tabloids do.”

Sylvia’s cast and crew have, she says, “all talked a lot about freedom and what that means as we’ve developed the musical. The thing that still gets me is that, in Sylvia’s day, women didn’t even have the right to their own bodies; a husband could force his wife to have sex any time he wanted and it wasn’t rape!”

There’s a song in Sylvia named after the so-called Cat and Mouse Act – officially: The Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act, passed in 1913 in response to incarcerated suffragette hunger strikes. The act allowed the prisoners to be released on licence once starvation affected their health. They were given a brief time to recover, after which they were rearrested to serve out the rest of their sentence. Imprisoned women were brutally force-fed: there are records of at least two being force-fed rectally; another was left with bruising after a tube was inserted into her vagina.

“It’s the kind of violence that seems to come from another time,” says Knight. “But women’s loss of bodily autonomy is back, isn’t it? Roe vs Wade has been overturned in the US. I mean: WHAT?! Women put their bodies on the line to get votes that should have stopped that sort of thing from happening. But, sadly, there are some women who prefer to acquiesce.”

Pacifist Sylvia saw her mother and sister as acquiescent when they agreed to cease their protests in support of the First World War. “Emmeline was only fighting for middle-class women,” says Knight. “But Sylvia was fighting for the working classes, too. She had an affair with the Labour Party founder Keir Hardie and was expelled from the WSPU for her politics.”

The company of Sylvia at the Old Vic - Manuel Harlan
The company of Sylvia at the Old Vic - Manuel Harlan

The cracks in their relationships multiplied. “While Christabel didn’t want men involved in the movement, Sylvia famously loved men,” says Prince. “And I’d like to make it clear that this is a show that celebrates the men who became part of the movement and fought for equality. Men like Keir Hardie, George Lansbury and David Lloyd George, who was prime minister when women got the right to vote in 1918.”

The villain of the piece is Winston Churchill, who famously refused to be “henpecked” into allowing women to vote. “No matter the context,” sighs Knight, “Churchill is always portrayed as our heroic wartime leader. Fine and dandy. But in this play he’s the comic baddy. The light relief. Sorry!”

Prince tells me that they have “had fun showing Churchill in a domestic situation”, stuck between his wife, Clemmie, who believed in women’s suffrage, and his mother, who thought women should stay out of the boozy boys’ club of government. While Prince has already received letters complaining that her portrayal is “disrespectful”, she argues: “He was a complex man. He was a great statesman, but he was on the wrong side of this issue. And we didn’t even go into his racism.”

Knight rolls her eyes and continues: “It’s important that we stop judging people in a binary way. We’re all messy and flawed. Look at Emmeline. She started a movement that changed the world for women. But while fighting for women’s voices to be heard, she fought hard to silence her daughter. Eventually, they became totally estranged.”

Although both Prince and Knight now discuss the Pankhursts like family friends, they’re both angry that they were taught so little about these game-changing activists at school. “I had a sense of who Emmeline was,” says Knight. “But when it came to the richness and complexity of that sociopolitical timeline? Not a scooby! Shocking.” Prince agrees. “That’s why we’ve used hip hop to celebrate the movement. To bring that energy back to life for young people. They need to know what these women did for them. And why it’s important to use their votes.”

Sylvia is at the Old Vic until April 1; oldvictheatre.com