Are you ready for this “anti lesbian period drama”?
BY CAIT FINDLAY, IMAGE BY CLODAGH CHAPMAN
“Can lesbians coexist with WiFi?” is one of the central questions demanding to be asked about much of queer popular culture. No one is complaining about watching Suranne Jones striding around Yorkshire in her top hat in Gentleman Jack, but it can feel as though lesbian stories are stifled under a sea of petticoats.
So when I heard about Ladyfriends, a theatre show about the relationship between Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst, two women central to the suffragette movement, I was somewhat cynical. Do we really need another story about (potentially) queer women from an age where women were still fighting for the right to vote?
Sarah Allen, the producer working on Ladyfriends, describes it as “an anti lesbian period drama”. The genre can be lush, with amazing costuming and beautiful cinematography, but Sarah says that the form can sometimes be “limiting”.
Writer and director Clodagh Chapman, previously interviewed by DIVA for her work with queer theatre group Bedlam Chorus, agrees. “Inasmuch as Ladyfriends is about these two people, it’s also about the way that queer women have been depicted onscreen,” she says. “They always do a lot of sighing and staring at each other.”
Annie and Christabel definitely don’t sound like the sighing-and-staring sort. They were two of the first suffragettes in the UK to be arrested, for disrupting an all-male meeting of politicians and demanding when women would be given the right to vote. Christabel Pankhurst was, of course, daughter of the formidable suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, while Annie Kenney was a working-class socialist feminist who became an activist after the early death of her mother.
Although the two women were united by the cause, it’s possible that they may also have been united in other ways. Clodagh tells me that there is a part in Annie Kenney’s diaries about how the women held hands while they were being arrested. “Annie does this whole thing in her memoirs about how she felt really at peace,” she says. “That’s something that a lot of people sort of point to as evidence that they were queer women.”
So there was some hand-holding, and diaries from other women suggested that Annie “slept with” as many as 10 or 15 different women while staying with friends – which could have been a totally innocent, practical sharing of beds. Annie also wrote about Sappho’s poetry in her diary, which is a big rainbow flag. There’s also the fact that, when Christabel went to Paris to avoid prosecution in the UK, Annie journeyed to visit her every weekend. In 1913. That seems pretty gay to me.
Sarah and Clodagh, though, warn against making assumptions too readily. Clodagh says, “This is a story that is very contentious and we don’t know the answers. I know what I want to be the answer, but I don’t know what actually was the answer.” Our little gay hearts are so ready to jump on a story and proclaim, “lesbians!”, but the play deals with historical source material that is ambiguous and contested. Even the show’s name, Ladyfriends, is a whisker away from “girlfriends”, playing on the antiquated feel of the word “lady”.
A refusal to give the women a definitive word for their messy, contested relationship is the point of the play, in Sarah’s view. She says that it asks the question, “What happens when the best answer we can find is, ‘I don’t know’? It’s about celebrating uncertainty and celebrating the spaces in between identities. I just want to confuse people.”
Tickets for Ladyfriends can be purchased at:
MANCHESTER, 3rd & 4th May: https://www.outsavvy.com/event/8479/ladyfriends
LONDON, 6th & 7th May: https://cptheatre.co.uk/whatson/Ladyfriends
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