History is littered with forgotten figures. Sometimes it is simply because their actions weren’t widely known during their lifetime, without the benefits of records to publicise them. Alternatively, it is the deliberate result of authorities burying evidence of ‘troublemakers’… Written by Kimberly Campanello and directed by Luke Davies, the play looks at Constance Markievicz (Charlotte Gallagher) and Eva Gore-Booth (Hannah Berry) – two sisters who lived during the period when the Suffragette movement was at its peak in the British Isles. Born of Anglo-Irish nobility prior to the inception of the Irish Free State, the Irish famine of 1879 left a lasting impression on the sisters, reminding them how fortunate they were compared with others. Adulthood would lead to very different paths for Eva and Constance, though each in their own way would be ‘fighting the good fight’ and kept in contact with each other.
Rather than write a conventional narrative, the production has a measured quality, like a documentary. The show is bookended by an aural montage of opinions about the sisters. During their lifetime, they made a deep impact within their respective pursuits, though as a consequence of their forthright views, were controversial figures.
A traverse stage is used for the show, but to be fair, much of what takes place isn’t on the thrust, but on either side of the room. For the most part, the sisters spent their respective lives in either Ireland (Constance) or England (Eva), so the physical distance between them is represented by placing them on either side of the audience. Asides from the periodic commentary that punctuates the show, footage from the turn of the century is played, showing the women who bore the brunt of poverty and whose lives they tried to change.
The dramatic vignettes depict more clearly the different paths of the sisters and the causes they felt passionately about. Constance was a woman of action and felt that Ireland should be free to determine its own destiny. Initially joining her sister in the suffragette movement in Manchester, her thoughts later turned to political reform across the Irish Sea. Present and arrested during the Easter Rising of 1916, her death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment through the intercession of Eva.
In contrast to her ‘revolutionary’ sister, Eva led a ‘quieter’ existence, but in her own way had a greater vision for social change. Asides from campaigning for the right for women to vote, she ran her own publication, Urania, that kept tabs on women worldwide who broke the ‘glass ceiling’ and obtained palpable legal power to affect change. The differences between the sisters didn’t stop there. Constance married an affluent Polish artist, but much of their lives were spent apart. Eva, meanwhile, spent most of her life living with suffragist Esther Roper and campaigned for recognition of same-sex female relationships – a bold endeavour when you consider a few years previously that Queen Victoria didn’t enough acknowledge that lesbianism existed.
Constance & Eva is a thoughtful, meditative examination of the early 20th century through the eyes of two women, whose empathy led them to try and change inequality because they could. Watching this show, I get the impression that what the women were concerned with wasn’t their own personal fame, but for their legacy to continue. That women should continue to speak out, be agents of change and not be defined by men’s expectations of them.
© Michael Davis 2017
Constance & Eva runs at the Bread & Roses Theatre, London until 27th September.