Interview with Natalie McGrath

Published June 19, 2013

Playwright Natalie McGrath discusses Oxygen and Dreadnought South West

This summer Dreadnought South West will be delivering a major arts and heritage project celebrating the centenary of The Great 1913 Suffrage Pilgrimage. As part of this project, a specially commissioned play, Oxygen, by Natalie McGrath will go on tour from Lands End to London, following the route of the original pilgrimage, one hundred years ago. In the run up to the Exeter leg of the tour, Belinda Dillon spoke to Natalie about the project.

How did the project begin?

In 2008 I saw a copy of a photo of a group of women holding a banner that read ‘National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society Land’s End to London’, and immediately I thought that there was a story to be told there.

I started to have conversations with people, and found a book by Kathryn Bradley called Friends and Visitors, which is a history of women’s suffrage campaigns in Cornwall, published by the Hypatia Trust. As my research continued, I discovered more about the pilgrimage, and that the women had stopped in all these places across a South West route to rally and recruit people to support the votes for women campaign.

Piecing the dots together, I thought that it would be exciting to do a Cornish tour with Cornish actors – so many of whom are specialists in going on tour and performing indoors and outdoors, that kind of lifestyle – and some of whom I had been lucky enough to work with through the Hall for Cornwall’s Responses project, which is where I began to learn my craft as a writer. I then I got busy trying to build a career.

My first professional play Metal Remains in 2008, was produced by Theatre West in Bristol, and subsequently shortlisted for the Meyer Whitworth Award. In 2011, Coasting was produced by Bristol Old Vic, after an intense and incredibly supportive development time through their Literary department and Ferment programme. I really started to understand something more about my craft as a writer. These things take time. I also worked with the Brewhouse Theatre on Rift as part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012. Still very much learning. Always learning!

But I knew the picture of those women who walked in 1913 was a big thing, and so I kept it at the back of my mind, not ever really letting go of it. Not losing sight of the image. But not knowing what I might do.

So how did you transform it from that single image into the multi-date tour that it is now?

I wrote to the Hypatia Trust and they invited me to become a fellow. This enabled me to go and stay on retreat with them and it was here that I really started to research and develop my ideas around the project. My conversation with Melissa Hardie MBE had begun and was inspiring.

So I then invited a director to come on board: Josie Sutcliffe, who was previously head of theatre at Dartington, and has a great track record of working on new plays by women; she is also a Greenham stalwart, and therefore has a sense of the women’s movement. I knew that a project like this would be more than just a job, that people involved would have to buy into the ethos. To have a real engagement with the material. Josie has also trained at the Berliner Ensemble and her understanding and experience in Epic theatre became a critical part of the development of the play Oxygen. I became even more inspired.

We talked it through with cultural managers Sue Kay and Mary Schwarz, who agreed that it would be a fantastic idea to run a tour 100 years later, and that it should cover the whole region. Not just the initially proposed Cornish leg of it. Mary and Sue really helped us find a vision through an R & D stage, for what became not just a touring theatre show in the making, but a project with a wider reach and resonance. Dreadnought South West became the original name for the project and it has stayed with us. There are arts and heritage waymarkers projects and short land journeys all across the region now. Amazing.

You mentioned the ‘ethos’ of the project being an important aspect…

Although at first we didn’t know whether we had a theatre tour or a commemorative walk, what we realised very quickly was that we were moving towards launching an organisation – Dreadnought South West Association – to champion women’s voices and stories in the region, and to encourage the development of women artists and makers.

The Arts Council-funded project, Dreadnought South West, has become about using your voice, and that could be young women and young men seeing us use our voices through the development of this project, grasping the notion of how important it is to have a voice.

We’re not a political party, but we are engaging with the core politics and values of the women’s suffrage movement, demanding to be heard. The reason that women wanted the vote, needed the vote, was because they saw three core values that needed addressing – to end child poverty, to stop the slave trade, and to stop sweated labour, on behalf of men and women – and were not being addressed in parliament. When we discovered that those were the founding principles of the suffrage campaign, we realised how close we are to those things today, and that they raise many questions on our society.

How does the play, Oxygen, fit into the project?

Oxygen is the lifeblood that runs through it, and will be performed at most of the stopping places along the original route. There isn’t a theatre show in every place, but there will be episodes, fragments and parts of the show in public spaces. The pilgrimage was organised by law-abiding suffragists as another face of the campaign votes for women, to the heightened militancy of the suffragettes.

At the heart of Oxygen is the notion of how differently people campaign for the same cause. We’re not performing an historical re-enactment, although I am trying to infuse stories from the pilgrimage into the story. During the development phase, what Josie and I first talked about was created something that could play indoors and out, so I chose to attempt to work in the epic form, and from this we shaped a vision for the play.

There are unusual shifts between episodes, so there’s not a smooth narrative arc, and that sense of disruption resonates with what the women did, as they disrupted the status quo. The form lends itself to content. So we might have a scene with a militant ‘newsy’ then move to a personal scene, then an imagined scene between Mrs Fawcett and Mrs Pankhurst. The disruption of expectation keeps us on our toes, and we want it to be exciting, to capture the spirit of the times. I hope that it’s a show that can appeal to as many people as possible. I always had in my mind that it would have broad appeal and yet still touch upon these incredible issues that are still relevant to us in our contemporary world.

And the project has inspired individuals and organisations to remember the pilgrimage in their own way…

There are talks and debates going on all over the region, as well as commemorative land journeys to celebrate the courage and spirit of those women, who put one foot in front of the other to march for what was important to them. Funding permitting, we are also hoping to establish an online museum of suffrage objects from the region, which will create a lasting legacy and educational resource. So many people across the region have initiated their own responses and projects. Their generosity and enthusiasm for the project has been incredible.

And what sort of legacy might result from Dreadnought South West?

One thing that materialised for me is that this was not just a one-off project – as difficult as that was to articulate and conceive, and to raise the funds – but I wondered if a platform was emerging for women artists to have a voice to engage, in terms of the relationship between arts and heritage, where that will sit, how might they have a conversation and how might they celebrate women’s stories and women’s voices, across communities. That’s the most simple way I can articulate it. That would be the future I’d like it to have, to continue to explore that notion of celebrating women’s voices.


Oxygen is on tour 19 June-20 July 2013. Click here for a full venue listing and to buy tickets.

Oxygen comes to Rougemont Gardens in Exeter on Thu 4 Jul. Buy your tickets here.