The thing about a story like the one in Homemaking for Beginners is that there’s a risk of indulging in what certain talk show radio hosts call ‘whataboutery’, when people ring their stations during discussions about a certain topic and start talking about different situations that they feel are even ‘worse’ than the one being discussed, and therefore more worthy of investigation and conversation than the one callers were invited to talk about. Isn’t life relatively good in Switzerland? The life expectancy is above average, and it’s not exactly the first place that comes to mind when one thinks about crime or incompetence. Or criminal levels of incompetence.
The script eventually does all the whataboutery for the whatabouters, in a quickfire final scene that makes it plain, with about as much subtlety as there is in The Book of Mormon musical (that is, precisely none) that while the Swiss eventually got around to achieving women’s suffrage – more than half a century after the UK gave women the right to vote in elections – there are plenty of examples where there is still so much work to be done. In Britain, in 2021, the production points out, there has been the rather absurd suggestion that a woman in distress should attempt to flag down a bus.
There’s some flitting about between the years, as the story starts in 1952, before jumping back to 1945, and then at some point to the start of the Second World War, and leaping forward, making a few stops along the way, as far as 1971. The show’s narrator (no cast list was supplied to the audience at the performance I attended) was in various states of dress and undress throughout the evening, and not always necessarily in keeping with the context of each scene.
There wasn’t, in the end, that much in the way of homemaking to witness, or what British schools used to call ‘home economics’ – nothing to do with domestic monetary policy. The story quickly became about – wait for it – a cookery book, which Elizabeth, who runs some sort of homemaking academy, has taken years to write with considerable care and passion. That in turn becomes the subplot, overtaken by the fight for women to vote.
The battle may not have involved a suffragette being struck by a horse, or violent acts, or what might be seen in this day and age as terrorism. But the production commendably dramatizes a true event in Swiss political history. Paul Zenhäusern was a local councillor and helped to set up the first women’s vote, in 1957 – his wife Katharina was the first Swiss woman to vote, though as the production would have it, she and her fellow women voters faced stiff opposition, including verbal abuse.
When it wants to, the show becomes poetical and profound, but it’s also not beyond a cathartic release in a manner which would be revealing too much if I gave any further details on it, except to say: sit in the front row at your own risk. The show’s epilogue calls for a ‘new beginning’, which I’m not sure is the only way forward, if only because I’ve heard women elsewhere ask, quite legitimately, how many ‘beginnings’ there must be before things actually change for the better. It would, perhaps, be better to build on the successes of previous campaigners. The production could also trust its audiences to make the connections between the events depicted and contemporary living for themselves. That said, it’s a slick show and it was easy to maintain interest throughout.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Switzerland was the last European country giving women the vote – in 1971. Using original poetry, physical theatre, comedy and drama, “Homemaking for Beginners” by Good Women Arts tells the real story of a group of Swiss women and men, their fight for suffrage and a life outside of rigid gender expectations.
The piece transports the audience back in time throughout the 1950s – 70s, while asking the questions: What happens when women have no say in political decisions? Why does representation matter? And when is it time to call enough and begin again?
Cast & Creative
Faith McCune – Elisabeth
Lena Liedl – Gertrud
Abigail Stone – Lilith
Sophie Mardsen – Johanna
Jayant Singh – Paul
Murphee Thompson – Katharina
19th – 20th October 2021