Using verbatim theatre to address the erasure of revolutionary women from history

Political theatre is definitely having a bit of a renaissance at the moment. A big feature of this has been the rise of verbatim theatre - with theatre makers like Gillian Slovo, Tania El Khoury and Robin Soans giving us important political plays about Islamic State, civil war in Syria and gay sports stars within the past couple of years.

Fringe theatre has followed suit: RE:HomeThe Sex Workers' OperaE15The Invisible ConditionThe Clinic and Spill - verbatim plays about, respectively, the housing crisis, sex work, grassroots activism, mental health, chemsex and young people's attitudes towards sex.

For many of these companies - the appeal of verbatim is clearly the fact that it gives a voice to people who are otherwise marginalised. We live in a world in which minority cultures remain underrepresented and politically vulnerable: it's unsurprising, then, that so many theatre makers are clearly uncomfortable about the idea of speaking on behalf of disenfranchised cultures and identities. 

Verbatim theatre has become a popular form for people wanting to explore (among other things) issues relating to gender, the LGBTQI+ community, race and social class. Its reach as a genre seems vast - but there's one area that verbatim theatre makers rarely seem willing to venture into: the past. 

For sure, dramatic reconstructions of moments in history are common enough. But plays that really embrace the values of verbatim - providing a platform for underrepresented voices in the form of documentary-style theatre - rarely seem willing to delve into history (a fact that's perhaps ironic given that David Hare's verbatim history play The Permanent Way was instrumental in starting off the craze back in 2003).

The play that I'm currently working on - written by the poet Kimberly Campanello, and co-devised with theatre makers Charlotte Gallagher and Hannah Berry - is (as you might have guessed) an attempt to use verbatim principles to excavate the past. 

So why have we chosen to do this? And why do we feel the need to defend the practice?

Constance and Eva is about two revolutionary sisters: Constance Markievicz and Eva Gore-Booth - feminist, socialist, queer activists, born in the second half of the nineteenth century in Ireland.

One of the main reasons behind choosing to tell their story was our sense of the injustice in the way in which these sisters have been written out of history. Both were famous in their lifetimes: Constance for taking up arms in the Easter Rising and for spending a good portion of her life in and out of prison as a result of her battle against imperialism; her sister, Eva, for defending the rights of working women (causing Winston Churchill to lose his seat after campaigning against his efforts to diminish the working rights of barmaids), and for writing and editing a queer, feminist magazine with her life partner, Esther Roper. Constance was even the first elected female MP. And yet very few people (especially outside of Ireland) seem to know who they were...

As a company, we felt strongly that this was a hugely important story to tell. Our sense was that the way in which these two women have been reduced to footnotes in most accounts of the period is symptomatic of the continuing marginalisation of people who are queer, revolutionary or feminist. We also felt that their shared brand of political idealism and determination (they sacrificed their lives for their utopian beliefs) is something that's worth celebrating - especially for the reason that it's so out of sync with our current way of looking at the world.

Bearing all this in mind - when we first started out on this project, the task of telling the story of the sisters' lives felt like it carried with it a huge burden of responsibility. Who were we to reconstruct their lives in this way?

The verbatim form ultimately appealed to us for the same reasons that I think it appeals to other theatre groups wanting to tell the stories of marginalised groups living in the present. It became obvious to us that if we were going to tell their story - we had to use their own words. The idea of fabricating discussions and scenarios into the form of a conventional drama felt deeply problematic as a way of telling their story. To "reconstruct" the lives of two women under the guise of naturalism felt like it would be a travesty. As queer, radial feminists, Constance and Eva represent groups who have systematically been erased from history: simply put, we were unprepared to be complicit in that act.

Kimberly's play, then, tells the story of these sisters' lives using what she could gather from archives, their collected writings and various historical accounts of their lives. In the end, we felt it was also important to include our own perspectives - and so recorded footage from discussions in rehearsals has found its way into the piece, alongside bits of historical footage, extracts from historians and accounts written by contemporaries that help to give the sister's lives some context.

As such, Constance and Eva is an attempt to use verbatim techniques to in some way recover forgotten narratives from the past. In doing so, it hopefully emulates the respect that verbatim theatre as a form expresses towards existing, contemporary communities: refusing to speak on their behalf, and instead trying to find a basis for drama less in imaginary reconstruction, and more in mediated conveyance.

Whether Constance and Eva succeeds or not as an experiment in reconstructing the past using verbatim techniques - we'll soon see! But whatever happens, we've learnt a lot as a company from discovering that the project of challenging traditional means of constructing narratives - in this instance through verbatim theatre - doesn't have to be limited to contemporary communities and events, but can just as easily be used as a tool for reconstructing the past. 

Hopefully Constance and Eva will also prove that political theatre in general doesn't always have to be current: that holding up examples from the past - especially those that have been forgotten - can do something to indicate the failures and the limitations of the present.

(c) Luke Davies


Constance & Eva runs 17-27 September at The Bread & Roses Theatre in Clapham.

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