Sylvia: the suffragette giving musicals a kick in the ballots

It sets history to hip-hop and has a diverse cast – but Sylvia is not riding on the coattails of Hamilton, says its director Kate Prince. Instead its heroine marches to a beat all her own

When, in 1904, suffragettes Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney gatecrashed a Liberal party meeting in Manchester to protest their right to vote, they probably didn’t do it to a hip-hop beat. But the scene playing out in a south London rehearsal room shows just that. Bouncing about the stage, the women chant: “You’re looking for compliance and we’re giving you defiance!”, while the men wag their fingers: “Enough of this horseplay, you’ve had your say / Your role as a woman is to serve and obey.”

The heavy bassline, catchy hooks and soulful vocals might not be 100% historically accurate but choreographer/director Kate Prince hopes they’ll bring alive the story of women’s suffrage in her new show, Sylvia, based on the life of Sylvia Pankhurst, sister of Christabel and daughter of suffragette leader Emmeline. Working with writer Priya Parmar and composer/lyricists Josh Cohen and DJ Walde, Prince has translated historical speeches and diaries into the idiom of hip-hop, funk and soul. So Emmeline Pankhurst’s statement “You have to make more noise than anybody else” becomes the hip-hop call to arms: “Make some noise!”

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