Kentucky-born actor, writer and activist Elizabeth Robins’ play Votes for Women, first staged at the Royal Court in 1907, is animated by a scintillating intelligence. Adapted and directed by Theresa Heskins to mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, it’s a fine tribute to the literary and political energies of the woman who first played Ibsen’s heroines on the British stage and pulled a gun on a pestering George Bernard Shaw.
It depicts the political moment in which suffragists became suffragettes, when methods of polite patience gave way to direct action and anger at the reform-promising but inert Liberal government. Heskins provides a neat prologue that dramatises outcry in the parliamentary women’s gallery in response to the sneering and filibustering of male MPs.
The first act is dense and detailed with lively repartee. Into an upper-class Edwardian milieu preoccupied by philanthropy, Conservative re-election and amused distaste for noisy suffragettes comes the figure of Vida Levering (played with dignity and wit by Polly Lister), an unmarried woman in her thirties with political fervour and a compromised past. The latter has much to do with oily Tory Geoffrey Stonor, whose young and monied fiancee Jean (the excellent Lowri Izzard) experiences an ideological awakening.
Dawn Allsopp’s deft designs transport us from a genteel garden to a Trafalgar Square rally (one that could do with more action and racket) and Stonor’s drawing room. Though the ending is a little pat, it shows how personal ambition, rather than principle, effects political change.