Having been born and raised a stone’s throw from Epsom racecourse, I first learned of the tragic events of 4 June 1913 at a very young age. Since my initial childish reaction to the news, I have learned that it was not actually the king himself on the back of the horse that collided with Emily Wilding Davison, and much more besides. Now, 100 years after her death, a programme of events, Emily inspires!, is sharing her story. To Freedom’s Cause, a new play by Kate Willoughby, at Tristan Bates theatre, centres on the events in the months leading up to her death. Perhaps surprisingly for a play with such subject matter, it is a joyous, even-handed and moving portrayal.
Kate Willoughby also plays the central role of Davison, and clearly holds her in high regard, but does not allow her passion to interfere with her portrayal. She builds a complex character, torn between her somewhat renegade commitment to her cause and life’s many pressures. The circumstances surrounding Davison’s death are unclear; whether it was a genuine suicide attempt or accidental death is a contentious point. Though the play seems to lean towards the former, no easy answers are given.
The rest of the cast are similarly strong, many playing multiple roles so effectively that I was shocked to see how small the cast really was at the curtain call. Well directed by Jemma Gross, they move fluidly between their roles, facilitating an unexpectedly fast pace and an enormous diversity of perspectives. Short, well-constructed scenes seem to follow a non-linear timeline and there are multiple sub-plots which never become confused or difficult to follow. The tone is very varied, with many moments of surprising humour, notably from Kay Renner, who plays Margaret Davison (Emily’s mother), Mrs Sparboro and the prison nurse. However, all performers show themselves capable of deftly balancing tragic and comic moments. The talented cast even find time to play live music, under the direction of Laurel Swift, which always suits and enhances the mood of the action.
The design of the set, by Mike Lees, is simple and tasteful, enabling a wide array of locations, both inside and outside, public and private. The space is utilised wonderfully, with the action often allowing the actors to speak directly to the audience, making the show involving and immediate.
To focus on such a historic moment and iconic figure held dear by many is a difficult task. This play manages to avoid the clichés and reverence which can so easily befall such productions. The play does not simply pay lip service to the suffragette movement, particularly Emily Wilding Davison and her extreme tactics. It examines multiple points of view and offers a meaningful interrogation of equality, democracy and what actions are necessary and permissible in the pursuit of what is deemed to be right and just.
To Freedom’s Cause is playing Tristan Bates Theatre until 29 June. For more information and tickets, see the Tristan Bates Theatre website.