The life of pioneering suffragette and business woman Margaret Haig Thomas comes to the stage this summer in a new all-female production from Welsh National Opera.
Rhondda Rips It Up! is unlike anything previously presented by WNO. Performed in a classic music hall style, with original songs inspired by the suffragette slogans, this tongue-in-cheek production takes audiences on a whirlwind tour of the inspiring activist’s mission.
Lady Rhondda, as she was known, was a suffragette who ran the Newport branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – the militant organisation campaigning for women’s suffrage in the UK founded and run by Emmeline Pankhurst.
She was a pioneering business woman and sat on the boards of several international companies in the 1920s. The founder and editor of the influential feminist magazine Time and Tide, she campaigned tirelessly for equal rights for women. She was the first female Honorary President of The Institute of Directors and was posthumously responsible for the admission of women to the House of Lords.
With 2018 the 100th anniversary of the first wave of women being legally allowed to vote, WNO’s fascinating depiction of Lady Rhondda’s life has been created by an all-female team with original score composed by Elena Langer, who worked on WNO’s premiere of Figaro Gets A Divorce and libretto by Emma Jenkins who co-wrote the libretto for WNO’s 2016 world premiere In Parenthesis and it will be performed entirely by women.
Leading the creative team are director Caroline Clegg, musical director Nicola Rose and designer Lara Booth.
Madeleine Shaw (most recently seen in Der Rosenkavalier and Carmen for WNO) plays Lady Rhondda, and soprano Lesley Garrett will guide the audience through the story as Master of Ceremonies in a character based on real-life pioneering music hall entertainer Vesta Tilley, a female compere impersonating a male. Lesley returns to WNO after delighting audiences in The Merry Widow and in 2015’s spectacular Chorus!.
Lesley and the members of WNO’s Ladies Chorus will perform all the other roles – including male politicians Winston Churchill, Herbert Henry Asquith, and David Lloyd George as well as Margaret’s father David Alfred Thomas, first Viscount Rhondda, and her husband Sir Humphrey Mackworth (whom she divorced before entering a relationship with journalist Helen Archdale).
In a departure from WNO’s usual main scale summer season, Rhondda Rips It Up! will receive its world premiere at the Riverfront in Newport on June 7 before touring Wales and England throughout June, and again in the autumn.
The show will take in smaller venues in towns and cities that will enable WNO to reach many more people, including performances in Brecon, Treorchy and Newtown. It will also be performed at London’s Hackney Empire for two nights, a prestigious venue that elegantly and authentically represents the era in which the show is set.
Rhondda Rips It Up!’s director Caroline Clegg said ‘Rhondda Rips It Up! is a real celebration of independent women. As well as campaigning for women’s suffrage, Margaret Haig Thomas was a pioneering business woman and a strong independent woman in her own right.’
‘We hope audiences will learn more about Lady Rhondda. It’s also a darn good show with lots of vibrant, fast-paced, funny songs and dialogue. The music captures the flavour of the Edwardian period but has a contemporary feel about it as well. The libretto is so sparkly and witty and the rhymes and Edwardian music are very poetic. Audiences are going to have a lot of fun.’
Lesley Garrett said: ‘Rhondda Rips It Up! is a great celebration of a wonderful woman. She was a pioneer; Wales’s equivalent of Emmeline Pankhurst. All women in Britain should be grateful to her. It is an honour to be a part of a work that celebrates powerful women and their inspired quest for emancipation, liberation and respect.’
- More information on WNO’s Rhondda Rips It Up! is available at wno.org.uk