With Hard Labour: the Case Of Alice Parkinson (review)

by Carol Markwell, directed by Phillip Mann and Jo Kahl, Suter Gallery Theatre, Nelson.

Listener: 21 January, 1995.

Keywords: Literature and Culture;

A central problem in women’s suffrage year was how to recognize all women and not just the good and the great: ordinary women and their experiences, like falling in love, getting pregnant, and getting jilted. Real enough events to tens of thousands of women, illustrative of the economic and biological asymmetry of the genders, but largely ignored officially or, if remembered, deplored.

For some women it can be worse. A stillbirth, post-natal depression and, in the case of Alice Parkinson, she shot the faithless man, turned the gun upon herself, the bullet lodging in her brain remaining there the rest of her life.

And so the experiences of an ordinary woman in 1915 became a public issue. The jury, unable from the judge’s direction to find her not guilty of murder because of insanity, found her guilty of manslaughter with a strong plea for mercy. The judge ignored them, imprisoning Alice for “the term of her natural life, with hard labour”. Public protest followed, feminists and socialists organized a 60,000 signature petition.

Around the bare historical record Carol Markwell has researched Alice’s story encapsulating it in a play, of the time in prison with flashbacks to the trial and what went before. The cast of 22 sat on stage throughout, emphasizing that the Parkinson story is in the public domain, while the Cairde singers added to the historical context with fine barber shop renditions of songs of the time.

Short scenes and flashbacks means Alice’s moods change quickly – anger, romance, despair, nostalgia, scorn, madness – but Fiona Sills handled the transitions skilfully, so the story is credible, the history clear, and Alice a recognizable person and not just a symbol. We may well see Ms Sills in professional theatre before long, but she must always recall Alice as her first major role. The local critic was not alone in thinking she had demonstrated the ability to act Shaw’s St Joan.

The play has a number of cameos of the famous. Chief Justice Robert Stout judged her and then judged himself in the Court of Appeal. His wife, Anna Stout, disagreed. Another feminist Jane Donaldson led the protest. The stirring speech (based on the public record, as is much of the play) of Harry Holland, leader of the Labour Party, about the wrongs of women had a contemporary ring, reinforced by being played by Kerry Marshall, the Tasman mayor. Alice’s prison visitor was the writer Blanche Baughan, who observing Alice had suffered, “and surely that is enough retribution even for New Zealanders”. For that is what Alice’s trial and incarceration were about. On one side, symbolized by Stout, was social purity, the law, and punishment. Meanwhile the protesters, including his wife, were concerned about social justice, equity, and grace, a tension that exists to this day in penal policy and other social issues.

After six years, and a change of law, Alice was released and as the play ends “she never bothered the state again”, rejoining the mainstream of ordinary women, as wife, mother, and worker. Many of the audience rejoining the world outside the theatre had tears in their eyes, such was the success of the drama and the believable portrayal of an ordinary woman which the play celebrated.

While cast numbers can be reduced, a minimum of 11 means the play is probably not going to be commercially produced. But the play is excellent local repertory. If it comes your way, and is even only half as well directed as Phillip Mann’s excellent production, do go. Alice Parkinson may have been your grandmother.