‘One Hand Tied Behind Us’ Offers A Kaleidoscope Of Perspectives On Womanhood: Review

Photo Credit: The Old Vic

Watching One Hand Tied Behind Us, a collection of five commissioned monologues curated by Maxine Peake for London’s Old Vic theatre, is like looking through a kaleidoscope. With each turn, different perspectives of womanhood—spanning race, sexuality, class, liberty, age and time—are illuminated with poignant scrutiny, all twined inextricably together by a painful common denominator: the vice-like grip of patriarchal oppression. 

Though the monologues were originally staged in 2018 to celebrate 100 years since women were first enfranchised with the Representation of the People Act, their messages still feel just as urgent and relevant three years on. The selection of four of the monologues, available to watch as part of the Old Vic’s celebration of International Women’s Day 2021, should be essential viewing throughout March for British people everywhere—especially in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard and the recent conversations surrounding male violence against women. Indeed, the title of the compilation, a quote by English Suffragette Hannah Mitchell (“No cause can be won between dinner and tea, and most of us who were married had to work with one hand tied behind us”), encapsulates the frustration felt by so many women today. While they brandish one hand against gender-based issues, reaching out longingly for a better future, the other is dragged down, entangled in the current reality of those very issues.

The settings for the monologues (often just a chair with a few props) are deliberately muted to amplify the stories of the four speakers. Mother’s Little Helper 1963, written by Jeanette Winterson and performed faultlessly by Celia Imrie, has one eye gazing resolutely to the future, while the other still lingers on the past. Our speaker recounts a story from 1965, when as a feisty 21-year-old she unsuccessfully attempted to buy contraception for the first time. This hilarious little anecdote frames a wider discussion of the gradual enfranchisement of all women in the early twentieth century, the speaker’s own involvement in feminist campaigns in the 70s and 80s, and her ardent vow today to continue to fight for the women who come after her. In a mere 15 minutes, the subjects raised are remarkably broad—including the dismissal of female desire, the invisibility of the ageing woman, female mental health, and the lack of equal pay. 

Kit De Waal’s Imagine That, delivered in a stand-out performance by Flo Wilson, underscores the complexities of race and class when it comes to women’s experiences. Wilson plays Carmen, a black working-class woman who feels disillusioned by the empty promises of those with power (managers, supervisors, benefit workers and politicians) while her friend Rose remains unrelentingly positive in the fight for equality. The tension between Rose’s hopefulness and Carmen’s hopelessness is felt palpably throughout the entire performance—an exhausting tug-of-war which many activists will no doubt recognise within themselves. 

Maxine Peake’s Contactless, performed compellingly by Siobhan McSweeney, spotlights the struggles faced by arguably one of the most silenced groups of all: female prisoners. Through the story of soon–to–be–released convict Jenny, it astutely highlights how female crime often has its roots planted firmly in oppression, with many women imprisoned after suffering physical or sexual abuse by men. “Their only real crime,” remarks Jenny, “is making bad choices or having no choices.” 

Finally, Ella Hickson’s Betsy, performed by Jill Halfpenny, explores a different type of freedom; the freedom to say ‘no’ and live life on your own terms. Like many women, the speaker struggles to voice her need for boundaries, whether those boundaries are partition walls between the desks in her male-dominated office, or limits in her relationship with her poor, dependent sister, Betsy. Halfpenny effortlessly does justice to Hickson’s magnificent script, which is steeped in evocative and moving language.

One Hand Tied Behind Us is available to stream on YouTube until the end of March.

Words by Reem Ahmed.

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