Sat, 11 May 2024 19:00

Between Two Fires - Sylvia Pankhurst's lost play (in person)

Imprisoned for sedition in the infamous HMP Holloway in 1920/21, Sylvia Pankhurst wrote a play. In solitary confinement, with a contraband pencil on prison issue toilet paper, the legendary suffragette and socialist activist composed a dramatisation of her experiences within the political movements that would go on to bring vital social and political change, from her own grassroots activism to the top-level political conflict being played out by her beloved Keir Hardie – Labour's founding leader.

Nearly a hundred years later, Pankhurst's biographer, Rachel Holmes, discovered and transcribed the play via painstaking analysis of the delicate fragments jumbled into brown envelopes in the depths of an archive. First performed last year to a sold-out audience at The London Library Lit Fest, we are delighted to be bringing the play back exclusively to The London Library for a limited run, with new, recently discovered material woven into the script and an accompanying programme of talks.

Directed by Roxana Silbert, produced by Amy Powell Yeates, with a cast yet to be announced, this is a rehearsed reading and will be followed each evening by different discussions and conversations inspired by and in response to the play, as follows (times indicate the performance. The talks will take place directly after each performance):

Thursday 9 May, 7pm: Labour MP for Rhondda and parliamentary historian Chris Bryant speaks to Rachel Holmes about how to make change in politics, the history of the Labour Party and his work uncovering the stories of activism and injustices around sexuality and gender in Britain, including in his new book James and John, about the last men to be hanged for homosexuality in Britain. 

Friday 10 May, 7pm: Film director Sarah Gavron (Suffragette), Sylvia Pankhurst's biographer Rachel Holmes and London Library Archivist Nathalie Belkin, speak to Claire Berliner about archives and what gets lost within them, unearthing the hidden stories of women in history and the project of bringing those stories to light on page, stage and screen.

Saturday 11 May, 7pm: Activist and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, Helen Pankhurst, and human rights lawyer and campaigner, Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, speak to Rachel Holmes about the legacy and relevance of Sylvia Pankhurst's life, work and activism in today's contested and troubled times. 

Sunday 12 May, 3pm: Playwrights April de Angelis, Sonali Bhattacharyya and Chris Thorpe speak to Rachel Holmes about political theatre, how they and others have responded to the political climate and whether theatre has the power to make change. This will be followed by an EWP Scratch Night at 6pm, showcasing political playwriting from former and current participants in The London Library Emerging Writers Programme.

Performances begin at 7pm on Thursday 9 May, Friday 10 May and Saturday 11 May and at 3pm on Sunday 12 May. Performances will run for an hour and will be immediately followed by a 45 minute talk. Doors (and the bar) open 30 minutes before each performance.

Supported using funding from Fondation Jan Michalski

Books by contributors are available to buy from our partner bookshop Hatchards and will be available at the Library during each event.

Please see our Event Access Guidelines before you arrive. London Library events are subject to Terms and Conditions.

Book Tickets


Creative team:

Rachel Holmes is the author of four biographies: The Secret Life of James Barry, The Hottentot Venus, Eleanor Marx: A Life  and Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel. She has edited collections of political writing, published as a journalist and worked as an academic, activist and literary programmer. Between Two Fires is her second work for the stage. She co-commissioned  Sixty Six Books: 21st Century Writers Speak to the King James Bible with Josie Rourke and Chris Haydon.

Amy Powell Yeates is a producer and writer from Wales. Previously she developed new work for Playful Productions, collaborating with theatres including the Royal Court, Bush and Birmingham REP, working with creatives including Alice Birch, Clint Dyer and Hilary Mantel. As a playwright, she was selected for the 2020/21 London Library Emerging Writers Programme and in the past year her work has appeared at new writing nights around London.

Roxana Silbert directs for stage, screen and audio. She works mainly on original drama. She was Artistic Director of Hampstead Theatre (2019-2022); Artistic Director of Birmingham Repertory Theatre (2013-2019); Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (2009-2013); Artistic Director of Paines Plough Theatre Company (2005-2009); Literary Director at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (2001-2004); and Associate Director of the Royal Court (1998-2000). 



Nathalie Belkin is the Archivist at The London Library. She previously worked in archival institutions in New York City, including Green-Wood Cemetery and the New York City Department of Records, NYC Municipal Archives, where she worked on varied projects including processing original blueprints and plans for the construction of The Brooklyn Bridge, mayoral papers and NYPD surveillance documents. 

Claire Berliner is Head of Programmes at The London Library.

Sonali Bhattacharyya is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter whose productions include Chasing Hares (Young Vic), Two Billion Beats (Orange Tree Theatre),Assembly and 2066 (both for Almeida Theatre), The Invisible Boy (Kiln Theatre) and the forthcoming Liberation Squares (Nottingham Playhouse/Brixton House). She has a drama series in development with Dancing Ledge Productions and an Augmented Reality project in development with Anagram.

Chris Bryant is an acclaimed historian of Parliament and a Sunday Times bestselling author. He has been the MP for the Rhondda since 2001 and is Shadow Minister for Creative Industries and Digital. Between 2020 and 2023, he chaired the Committees on Standards and Privileges and helped draft the new House of Commons Code of Conduct. His books include The Glamour Boys, which won the 2020 Parliamentary Book Award, Code of Conduct and James and John.

Shami Chakrabarti is a leading human rights lawyer and campaigner who has written and broadcast widely and held a number of public roles in recent decades. A legislator in the House of Lords, she is the author of On Liberty, Of Women and the forthcoming Human Rights: The Case for Defence. Director of Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties) from 2003 to 2016, she was Shadow Attorney General for England and Wales from 2016 to 2020.

April de Angelis is an acclaimed playwright whose work includes The Divine Mrs S (Hampstead Theatre), Infamous (Jermyn Street Theatre) Kerry Jackson (National Theatre), My Brilliant Friend (Rose Theatre, Kingston); After Electra (Theatre Royal Plymouth and Tricycle Theatre); Jumpy (Royal Court and Duke of York’s Theatre) and Playhouse Creatures (revived at Chichester Festival Theatre, 2013).

Sarah Gavron is an award winning film director whose work includes the BAFTA and BIFA nominated Brick Lane, her most recent work, Rocks, which premiered at Toronto Film Fest in 2019 and won Best British Independent Film at the 2019 BIFAs, and Suffragette, the story of the suffragette movement starring Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff and Helena Bonham Carter, which received over 11 nominations and awards.

Helen Pankhurst CBE is a women's rights activist and senior advisor to CARE International, working in the UK and in Ethiopia. She is a Professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, a trustee of ActionAid and the convenor of the Greater Manchester focused GM4Women 2028 and the more national Centenary Action Group. Helen is the granddaughter of Sylvia and great granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, leaders of the British suffragette movement.  

Chris Thorpe is a writer and performer from Manchester. His work has touched on nationality and borders, political and social systems, our collective psychology around the climate crisis – and most recently the construction of cultural hierarchies and Iranian pop music (Things Hidden Since The Foundation of the World with Javaad Alipoor) and nuclear disarmament and global diplomacy (A Family Business with Staatstheater Mainz and China Plate).