Her Naked Skin
THOMAS LANGLEY appreciates the subtle approach of Her Naked Skin.
ADC Theatre, 7.45 PM, April 13th – 17th, £12/9.
Much as the central term in the play’s title might suggest, Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Her Naked Skin seems to function most effectively when bared down to its essentials. Directed by Rose Reade and set in the early years of the 20th Century, the play centres around the stories of upper-class Celia Cain (Bea Svistunenko) and machinist Eve Douglas (Claudia Grigg-Edo) and their relationship in the context of the struggle for female electoral representation, and issues of sexuality, mental health, class and others which the experience of imprisonment, amongst others, prompts.
When focussed on the passion and complexity of the relationship between the two women, or the disturbing mixture of clinical barbarity and self-righteous hypocrisy of the force-feeding of the imprisoned Suffragettes, the production grips. By contrast, when concerned more with less central material one’s interest flagged – the play seemed overloaded with minor characters whose presence in many cases seemed ultimately to detract from the overall experience, while first-night nerves and occasionally wooden delivery from some quarters somewhat hampered things.
This was most noticeable during the play’s first half – the early scenes between Celia and her conflicted husband William (Aoife Kennan), as well as those involving the senior Suffragette Florence Booman (Yasmin Freeman), being overly long in establishing the context of their characters’ later developments, especially in the latter case. With regard to the former, the most striking directorial decision is to cast William gender-blind, and thus for the character to come across as androgynous. Though an intriguing development, in the final analysis it seemed problematic, softening the impact of some of his more “patriarchal” pronouncements and dilemmas. In other regards, the first section of the play sees, perhaps predictably, the most noticeable episodes of opening-night issues and wooden acting – in a play more suited to darkly comic smiles than storms of laughter, the (seemingly inadvertent) dashing of Freeman’s head against the side of a bucket during an otherwise traumatic episode threatened to inject an unwanted note of slapstick – though such issues were less marked later.
In many regards, however, the production proves elegant and involving. The set and lighting combine to impress the nature of the characters’ continuing mental confinement even once free from penal incarceration; in terms of physical props, the production avoided the superfluous while still maintaining an period atmosphere. In general the play refrains from shoving political points down one’s throat – given that female suffrage is an essentially non-controversial issue insofar as 21st Century Britain is concerned, the focus on personal experience, and general points regarding torture and the perpetuation of restrictive social and gender, enable it to remain pertinent. Most importantly, though, when the play has impact it is significant – the complexity and depth of Celia and Eve’s connection, and the force of developments within it, being excellently brought out by convincing performances from Svistunenko and Grigg-Edo, while the subsequent portrayal of the latter’s developing mental illness (particularly pertinent given the currently ongoing Mental Health Week), as well as the arbitrary cruelties of imprisonment, prove immensely affecting. Though not without flaws, Her Naked Skin, when focussed, was moving, engaging and intelligent – and certainly worthy of your consideration.