The story of the suffragettes is a “metaphor for so many things going on right now” including gender inequality and the disenfranchisement of the poor, the singer Beverley Knight has said.
Knight is playing Emmeline Pankhurst in a new production at the Old Vic, which celebrates Pankhurst’s lesser-known daughter, Sylvia.
Sylvia, which premieres at the London theatre from next January, is a hip-hop musical looking at the life of a “feminist, activist, pacifist, socialist and rebel” who changed the lives of working women and men across the world.
“It’s a metaphor for so many things that are going on right now,” said Knight, who is widely regarded as one of Britain’s greatest soul singers. “The way that the poorer sections of society are disenfranchised and removed from what goes on in the social and political circles, how they’re easily passed over and disregarded – Kwasi Kwarteng and Liz Truss, I’m looking at you!”
The musical is set in a time when women’s voices were not only ignored but actively and in many cases violently crushed, but “in a lot of ways we still haven’t moved on”, Knight said. “Women are still held in subjugation. We still have mansplaining, we still have gender violence. Look at the Sarah Everard case, all the conversations that were a ripple effect from that.
“In the show we portray 18 November 1910, Black Friday, where the women who marched on parliament, led by Emmeline, were battered and a couple of them later died from the extent of their injuries. It’s a story that happened over a hundred years ago, but we’re still feeling the effects of that now, to this very day there’s still huge gender inequality.”
Directed and choreographed by Kate Prince, the musical follows in the style of Hamilton by telling a historic story in a new, imaginative way that will hopefully draw in younger and more diverse audiences. Sharon Rose, who starred as Eliza Schuyler in Hamilton in the West End, has even been cast as Sylvia Pankhurst.
Sylvia was expelled from the Women’s Social and Political Union for her insistence on involving working-class women in the suffrage movement.
The fervent Labour supporter, who had an affair with the party’s founder Keir Hardie, was at loggerheads with her mother, Emmeline, and her sister Christabel, who felt that suffrage could best be achieved through the efforts of middle class women like themselves, and who wanted to divorce the suffragette movement from any party politics. Sylvia was also a pacifist, while her family endorsed violence to achieve their ends.
“The musical draws on RnB and soul influences which will really help to pull in a new audience, that’s what we’re looking to do with the show,” said Knight, who had her first UK Top 10 hit with the album Who I Am, which was nominated for the 2002 Mercury prize. The 49-year-old made her West End debut starring in the Bodyguard in 2013, and has since been nominated for two Olivier awards.
“It’s massively significant” that the Pankhursts are being played by two black women, Knight said. “We’re in a time when Alexander Hamilton was played by a man of colour, Halle Bailey is playing Ariel in the forthcoming the Little Mermaid, which is a wonderful statement.
“We’re not trying to tell the story in terms of a biopic where you want people who physically look the part. We’re telling a story within the world of theatre where frankly anything can happen, anyone can stand up.”
The musical first showed at the Old Vic in 2018 as a work-in-progress, with original music by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde and book by Kate Prince and Priya Parmar. According to a Guardian review which gave it four stars, the show “is not simply about Pankurst: it is also about the deep divisions within the suffragette movement”.
For Knight, the missive is simple. “Emmeline says in the show: ‘Fall down seven times, get up eight’, and that becomes a rallying cry. I really get behind that. Women’s power was so feared that the establishment did everything it could to crush those voices. So the message is: own your power and be proud of it.”
Sylvia runs at the Old Vic 27 January – 1 April.