York Theatre Royal goes digital for Suffragette stream of Everything Is Possible protest play

Suffragette city: Women on the protest march in Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes on the York Minster Plaza in June 2017. Picture: Anthony Robling

YORK Theatre Royal will stream the 2017 community play Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes for free on YouTube from May 6.

Co-produced with Theatre Royal company-in-residence Pilot Theatre, this large-scale production was performed by a community cast of 150 and a choir of 80 from June 20 to July 1 that summer.

Set in early 20th century York, Juliet Forster and Katie Posner’s production began with Suffragette protest scenes and rallying calls on the plaza outside York Minster before moving indoors to the Theatre Royal’s main stage.

Leading professional actress Barbara Marten, who lives in York, played the lead role of Annie Seymour Pearson, a Heworth housewife who risked her life in 1913 to fight for women’s right to vote as women across the country, outraged by inequality and prejudice, began to rise up and demand change.

Barbara Marten as York Suffragette campaigner Annie Seymour Pearson at York Theatre Royal in June 2017.
Picture: Anthony Robling

Annie began her involvement in the Suffragette movement as an ordinary, middle-class housewife in a church-going family with a middle-management husband and three children.

She also was part of the Primrose League, who went out canvassing among women like themselves to influence them into urging their husbands to vote for certain candidates for election.

Yet you would struggle to find outward acknowledgment in York of Annie Seymour Pearson’s place in the city’s social history. “The house in Heworth Green, where she ran a safe house, no longer stands and there’s no blue plaque,” said Barbara at the start of rehearsals in late-May 2017. “Even her obituary made no mention of her having been a Suffragette.

“It’s interesting to choose Annie as a central character because she was such a genteel, respectable woman who didn’t start out as a militant, but various events propelled her forward.”

Barbara Marten, the one professional in the community cast of 150, in rehearsal for Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes

Not least, Annie was arrested in January 1913 when a union deputation of York Suffragettes headed to London as thousands of women converged on the capital to protest at the poverty that many women were living through.

“Annie was arrested for obstruction, just for walking on the pavement, and the charge was ‘obstruction’ simply because there were so many women there,” said Barbara.

“She was charged 40 shillings for her offence or three weeks in prison and she wrote to her husband to say that she would not pay her fine, but she would serve her sentence and was prepared to be imprisoned again.

“She’s there in prison for two days, when her husband comes down to London and pays the fine – and you can imagine the scene when she got home.”

Barbara Marten as Annie Seymour Pearson: wife, mother, Suffragette. Picture: Anthony Robling

Everything Is Possible highlighted how the Suffragette movement was not solely a London movement. “Instead, it was made up of women from all over the country, like in Manchester and Leeds, where lots of women worked in factories, and in York as well,” said Barbara. “Scarborough was very militant too.”

The 2017 “protest play” recalled how women in York ran safe houses, organised meetings, smashed windows and fire-bombed pillar boxes, the production telling the story of their dangerous, exhilarating and ground-breaking actions for the first time.

York playwright Bridget Foreman, who wrote Everything Is Possible, says of the timing of next month’s streaming: “It’s really poignant, in the midst of isolation and social distancing, to think about the making of Everything Is Possible; the extraordinary coming together of hundreds of local people, and the staging of huge crowd scenes both on the York Theatre Royal stage and outside York Minster.

“And now the stage is dark and the streets are empty. But looking back to the way in which that show brought people together, inspiring them in so many ways, is a wonderful reminder of the power of theatre and community.”

Playwright Bridget Foreman at the read-through for Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: John Saunders

Bridget continues: “We saw participants and audience members getting involved with theatre, politics, activism, local history, family research. Now, I really hope that people watching the production digitally will find their own inspiration, their own vision and energy for engaging with and changing the world when we come through this crisis.”

Directed by Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster and Pilot Theatre associate director Posner, now co-artistic director of Paines Plough in London, Everything Is Possiblewaspart of the Theatre Royal’s 2017 season Of Women Born, curated by a team of women to focus on work made and led by female artists, built around women’s stories.

Everything Is Possible can be streamed online on the Theatre Royal’s YouTube channel from 7pm on Wednesday, May 6 to Sunday, May 31. In the run-up to the streaming, the Theatre Royal will be sharing messages on social media from the volunteers who helped bring this production to the stage.

“These responses from the theatre’s community, promoted by the question ‘What does ‘everything is possible’ mean to you right now?’, aims to spread messages of hope and courage to the wider York community during the Coronavirus pandemic,” says marketing officer Olivia Potter.

The full cast and choir for Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes on the York Theatre Royal stage in June 2017. Picture: Anthony Robling

The Theatre Royal is asking viewers to support the stream by making an online or text donation, “so that York Theatre Royal can continue to engage and entertain the York community in the future”.

The Everything Is Possible online stream is part of the theatre’s Collective Acts programme of creative community engagement, taking place while the building is closed under the Coronavirus pandemic strictures.

Further details on the Everything Is Possible online stream and Collective Acts can be found at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Deeds not words: Suffragette protesters leave the York Minster Plaza to make their way to York Theatre Royal in the 2017 community play Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: Anthony Robling

REVIEW: Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes, York Theatre Royal/Pilot Theatre, at York Theatre Royal and York Minster Plaza, from The Press, York, June 23 2017.

DAMIAN Cruden has no hesitation in naming his greatest achievement in his 20 years as artistic director at York Theatre Royal: the rise and rise of the community play.

The city already had the York Mystery Plys, the street plays staged in myriad forms through the centuries, and when Cruden and Riding Lights’ Paul Burbridge directed the 2012 plays on their return to the Museum Gardens, a template was established for the series of community productions that has ensued.

Each has told a chapter of York’s history: the chocolate industry in the dark shadow of the First World War in Blood + Chocolate on the city streets; the rise and fall of the Railway King, George Hudson, in In Fog And Falling Snow at the National Railway Museum, and now the York Suffragettes in Everything Is Possible, outside the Minster and in the Theatre Royal’s main house.

Street protest: One of the modern-day protesters in the opening scenes from Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: Anthony Robling

A rabble noise swells from the Minster Plaza, a canny way to make the city aware that a major production of political dimensions involving more than 300 people is taking place in their midst at a time when the political landscape is more divisive and more inflammatory than for years. The scene, a throng of rebel songs and impassioned speeches, replicates demonstrations of yore, suddenly suffused by placard-waving Suffragettes in 1913 attire, followed by policemen forcibly breaking up the crowd.

The likes of Sophie Walmsley on her acoustic guitar need to placed higher above the crowd, but where Barbara Marten’s Annie Seymour Pearson takes her place on the Plaza steps is a better sight line.

“Deeds Not Words” say the placards: a mantra that wholly applies to how these community plays are mounted, volunteers to the fore on and off stage, this time under the guidance of a professional production team led by the Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster and Pilot Theatre associate director Katie Posner

Juliet Forster: York Theatre Royal associate director, co-director of Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes

Once we are ushered by the coppers to the theatre, there is a little lull for chatter and drinks refuelling before Bridget Foreman’s account of the previously untold story of York’s involvement in the Suffragette movement circa 1913 has its day and has its say.

Marten and Suffragettes historian Professor Krista Cowman have played significant parts in bringing the story to the stage, so too have Foreman and a research team, and now at last the role of Annie Seymour Pearson and her Suffragette safe house at 14, Heworth Green, next to the home of anti-Suffragette campaigner Edith Milner, has its rightful place in the city’s history.

Barbara Marten might strike some in the audience as being a little old for her role as a mother of four young children, but Foreman places her as much in the role of a narrator looking back on the events of a century ago as that of protagonist in the drama, and all of Marten’s passion for the story, as well as her celebrated acting skills come to the fore.

A scene from Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: Anthony Robling

York, it must be said, played rather less of a central role in the Suffragette drive for votes for women than it did in this year’s General Election with its visits by Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.

Yes, it played not even second fiddle to London and Leeds, but Emmeline Pankhurst (Liz Elsworth), leader of the British suffragette movement, made a speech here that forms the climax of the first half; leading Leeds campaigner Leonora Cohen (Loretta Smith) visited too, as did Lilian Lenton, the wild-card London arsonist, played by the breakthrough new talent of this show, University of York student Annabel Lee. A firecracker indeed, a professional career surely awaits.

Annie’s arrest in London for obstructing a policeman – when he had been the one to inflict a bloody nose – and the militant activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union in York, led by Jo Smith’s Violet Key Jones, are prominent in the play, A silent movie-style film sequence linked to live action shows the full horror of the prison practice of force-feeding hunger-strikers, showing off Sara Perks’s set to best effect too.

Rallying call: Two protesters on the York Minster Plaza at the outset of Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: Anthony Robling

Men have their place in the piece in the form of Mark France’s Arthur Seymour Pearson (rather reminiscent of the husband figure in Brief Encounter) and Rory Mulvihill’s stentorian Home Secretary.

A choir of 100 is tucked away out of sight in the gods, assembled by Madeleine Hudson to perform Ivan Stott’s folk-rooted campaigning compositions, but rightly they have their moment in the spotlight on stage at the finale.

Forster and Posner’s very lively, highly committed, educational and resolute production, peppered with anarchic humour as much as political zeal, forms the pinnacle of York Theatre Royal’s Of Woman Born season of women’s words and deeds. In straitened times for funding for the arts, Everything Is Possible affirms that anything is possible when a community comes together and turns York into Suffragette City.

Review by Charles Hutchinson. Copyright of The Press, York.