Rhondda Rips It Up premiered last night at The Riverfront, Newport, a homage to Margaret, Lady Rhondda, a remarkable woman in many respects. Having written about her in my book Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales I was struck by her seemingly unending energy fighting for many causes, running her father’s businesses, founding a magazine, and getting bombed on the Lusitania.
She is however, more well-known as a suffragette and it is this aspect of her life that the opera concentrates on. We canter through her life at quite a pace as she goes from privileged existence to prison (for blowing up a post-box), with Leslie Garrett as a sort-of Master of Ceremonies linking it all together.
The set, despite its rather amateurishly-painted backdrop, is cleverly designed and used; and certain events, such as depicting a bush behind which the bomb was buried, the Rolls Royce, on board the Lusitania, and others, are very imaginative and often very funny. There were sterling performances by Madeline Shaw as Lady Rhondda, and Lesley Garrett, and it was nice seeing an all-female cast. I did find the dialogue a little difficult to follow on times though, surtitles would have been welcomed.
Indeed, there are plenty of laughs throughout the whole performance, which does occasionally jar with the subject matter. Burying the bomb is very funny, but it was a device designed to destroy, for the express purpose of forcing the government to give women the vote. The slogan of the suffragettes was Deeds Not Words, and many of those deeds were steeped in violence, blowing up buildings and post-boxes, etc. What would their actions be called today? Terrorism. We rightly celebrate the suffragettes, even though the suffragists get left behind, and casually skitter past any idea of terrorism. After all, the past is a different country, they do things differently there.
The other subject which is skittered past by the Welsh National Opera is Lady Rhondda’s same-sex relationships. Having been in touch with members of the WNO last year, I was reassured that the subject would be included, and in a positive way. Which is quite true, her relationship with Helen Archdale is included. There is even a sort-of love song, which is a tad mundane, and a scene of them both in a bed planning to start Time and Tide, a magazine for women. On two occasions they almost kiss. Which is good, all reasonably positive stuff. So why am I disappointed?
Because the WNO has gone out of its way to avoid any publicity about the same-sex content. I did invite members of the production team to speak for LGBT History Month, but they were all too busy. At the launch, to which I was invited, throughout the whole event, nobody, not once, mentioned the love song or the inclusion of her relationship with Helen. When I asked why, they replied there was so much to cover in Lady Rhondda’s life, not everything could be included. So diversity has to be left out – sorry, just can’t fit you in. Lesley Garrett rushed over to assure me that Lady Rhondda’s sexuality was covered in the play and that she personally was pleased it was included. Nice of Lesley, but again – who in the production has made any effort to talk about it externally?
Another woman at the launch approached me, giving me her card, saying she was putting together workshops around the production and would like to look at one on sexual orientation. She was also considering contacting Pride Cymru to get them involved. Please would I email her with some ideas? I did – she never replied. I checked her email online sometime later, sent another, asking if she’d got the first – she never replied. There was no workshop.
There is a paragraph in the publicity pack, and one in the programme which mention Margaret and Helen’s relationship, the latter by Angela V. John author of Turning the Tide: The Life of Lady Rhondda, and for those wanting to know more about Margaret and her several same-sex relationships this is a great read. Alternatively, my book Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales also covers Lady Rhondda’s sexuality.
Under the Equality Act (2010) organisations have a duty of care to ensure all of diversity is represented. Put lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender into WNO’s search engine and the return message is ‘sorry, we couldn’t find anything.’ But, I hear you ask, isn’t that what equality is about, that we don’t need to mention if someone is gay, bisexual or transgender anymore? Which would be true were it not for existing discrimination – the rise of Brexit-fuelled hate crimes, the appalling conditions for LGBT people in other countries such as Russia, and the anti-LGBT manoeuvring of Donald Trump, giving fuel to the rabid red-necks of this country. We need celebrations of diversity in all its forms, to combat discrimination, but we can’t do it alone, we need allies. And it would have been so easy for the WNO to be an ally, to send out a positive message, especially given June is Pride month. They could easily have contacted Pride Cymru, Stonewall Cymru, or me, to ask for hashtags and tags to publicise their inclusion of gay content. We would probably have done all their publicity for them! Instead, WNO are like the parent who accepts their child is gay, but never mentions it to other family members, neighbours, colleagues, or talks about it on the bus.
Rhondda Rips It Up ends on a rousing sing-along-a-chorus of ‘we won’t surrender until it’s done/we won’t surrender until we’ve won.’ A sentiment true today as we still fight for women’s rights, and we still fight for LGBT rights.