This Tuesday 6 February marked the hundredth anniversary of the first women being granted the right to vote, and the Scottish Storytelling Centre paid homage to this in characteristically original fashion. ‘The Purple, White and Green: The Story of the Scottish Suffragettes’ promised to be an evening of storytelling infused with historical facts. Its ultimate aim was to highlight the work of the suffragettes in Scotland and their integral role in gaining the vote, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the hordes of people who were not granted this right.
The one-off show was a labour of love, as storytellers Nicola Wright and Lea Taylor spent a year researching the role of suffragettes in Scotland and developing their script. The end product was a fusion of play, photography and song; an ambitious project, which admittedly could have been executed more clearly. The interjection of slideshows of photographs from World War One, for example, felt more like a clumsy interruption to the flow of the performance.
Their meticulous local research meant they were able to provide insight into exceptional Scottish suffragettes who did exemplary work, but are perhaps overlooked – for example Catherine Blair, who used her farm house to provide refuge to hunger-striking women. However, the intermingling of fiction and real-life account was perhaps a little too fluid; it was sometimes unclear whether accounts of atrocities suffered by Suffragettes were part of the dramatisation or real-life accounts. This undermined the gravity of the real-life atrocities – accounts of force feeding in Calton Jail, for example, that were detailed in the performance.
The bulk of the performance was comprised of Wright and Taylor’s characterisation of two suffragettes and their plight. Playing Edith and Millie respectively, they told the story of two women’s suffrage journey, which was informative and humorous, if at times slightly contrived. Particularly insightful was their illustration of the ubiquity of violence at the heart of the suffragette movement. Though presenting this humorously – with rocks hidden in handbags, for example – the casual yet frequent mention of violence successfully highlighted a factor that was at the fore of the movement, yet is often overlooked in favour of a more romanticised presentation.
It was the inclusion of such details that led to such a fruitful question and answer session – the ultimate success of the evening. It was a joy to see Wright and Taylor discuss a period about which they clearly have ample knowledge, and it was here that their rigorous research emerged. With interesting points raised about, for example, suffragettes and their violence being likened to terrorism, the importance of an intersectional attitude towards the suffragettes, and the necessity of acknowledging overlooked voices, this section of the event was more successful in acknowledging the multitudinous complexities of the suffragette movement.
It was during this session that Wright and Taylor expressed their ambivalence about celebrating the centenary, with Wright going as far as to say that she didn’t believe it was cause for celebration at all. They were keen to draw attention to the huge proportion of people that continued to be denied access to the vote. Though this was something that was discussed at length in the question and answer session, it was somewhat bizarrely discussed little in the performance. Apart from an acknowledging sentence at the end – which felt slightly tagged on – this was disappointingly overlooked.
Taylor and Wright are currently working on taking their story around schools in Scotland, adapting the performance to make it locally relevant. Education about the historical plight of women is undoubtedly positive – one young audience member pointed out that feminism is treated as a dirty word in her school – and Wright and Taylors’ work is admirable. However, this development will hopefully be accompanied by an acknowledgement of the necessary ambivalent attitude that must be adopted towards the suffragette movement, something that was sadly excluded from their performance.
‘The Purple, White and Green: The Story of the Scottish Suffragettes’ took place at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on 6 February 2018.
Image: Miriam Morris