VICTORIAN WOMEN BOXERS: A Gut-punch Of A Play Will Make Its US Premiere At Dartmouth

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VICTORIAN WOMEN BOXERS: A Gut-punch Of A Play Will Make Its US Premiere At Dartmouth

The Dartmouth College Department of Theater will present the US premiere of a new hit UK play with tremendous curb appeal and high praise in the British press.

The Sweet Science of Bruising-Joy Wilkinson's vivid foray into the previously explored realm of women's boxing in Victorian England-will be performed Friday and Saturday, February 21, 22, 28 and 29, 8 pm, and Sundays, February 23 and March 1, 2 pm, in The Moore Theater of the Hopkins Center. Seating will be on the stage, at close range to the actors as they stage-fight in the ring with vigor and believability.

Before the February 22 performance, Wilkinson herself will take part in a public conversation titled "Victorian Morality and Everyday Reality in 19th-Century London," with Carolyn Dever, a Dartmouth professor of English whose areas of expertise include gender studies and 19th-century British literature and culture. The discussion will be moderated by the production's director Peter Hackett, Professor of Theater and Avalon Foundation Chair of the Humanities. Sponsored in part by the Leslie Center for the Humanities, the event is at 7 pm in the Top of the Hop and is free and open to the public.

Best known as the writer for the current female-driven incarnation of TV's Dr. Who, Wilkinson set the play in 1869, the height of Victorian England-when women's freedoms took a decided step back from previous times. The play follows four very different women as-controlled by men and constrained by corsets-they are drawn into the dark underground world of female boxing. Each finds an unexpected freedom in the ring. As their lives begin to intertwine, we follow them from grand drawing rooms to rowdy backstreet pubs where the women fight inequality as well as each other. It concludes with a final match to determine the Lady Boxing Champion of the World.

Reviews were rapturous and four-starred when the play began what turned out to be a sold-out run in 2018 at London's Southwark Playhouse.

Remarkably, the play hadn't been contracted by any US producers yet when Dartmouth's theater department asked last spring for rights for a Dartmouth production. Learning of the play while looking for activities for the summer 2019 Theater foreign study program in London, Hackett found a copy on Kindle (it hadn't yet been published with one of the usual play publishers) and reached out personally to Wilkinson's team to ask for rights and to also see if his students could meet her while in London. The answers were yes.

"Seeing the play last summer was such a treat!" wrote Sophia Kinne '20, one of three of the FSP students who are also in the cast of the Dartmouth production. "I had never seen such impressive fight choreography. It was also fun to draw my own conclusions about the story and the characters before meeting the playwright, and then when we got to meet her and ask questions, to see how some of my interpretations or ideas about it actually varied from how she thought about it when writing. Meeting Joy Wilkinson was also great because we got to hear about her writing/creative process and more details about the show that have given me a stronger base and understanding going into performing the show now. I feel like I have a greater appreciation for the characters and where they came from, both historically and as imagined by Joy."

Giving the play's American premiere "is a bit intimidating," Kinne wrote. "Joy will be here to see the show, which is nerve-wracking, but exciting. I think it will be fun for audiences to be up close and personal with the action, as the entire audience will be seated on the stage of the Moore Theater. This is very different from the original production, which was a proscenium set-up and had us sitting in a more traditional way of stage and audience separation. I also think the audiences will be intrigued by the idea of female boxers in Victorian England because this is often an idea that no one has heard of or considered, and here is a whole story about it."

The four women boxers the play follows represent a cross-section of classes and outlooks. One is an upper class woman with an abusive husband; another is Irish, trying to start a new life in England after being raped and bearing a child out of wedlock in Ireland; another is a coal miner from North England who has always wanted to be a prize fighter; and fourth is a nurse who wants to study medicine in Paris but can find no one to support her and is trying to raise funds in the ring.

These characters' stories still resonate with women today, and they shed light on how long, and in how many corners of society, women have been trying to gain control over their own lives, Hackett said. "To quote Harry Truman, 'The only thing new in the world is the history we don't know.'"

To create believable prize fights at close range, the four characters who box worked with Jennifer Karr, a trainer at the River Valley Club with years of teaching aquatics, kickboxing, strength, spinning and other physical disciplines.


Joy Wilkinson is an award-winning writer working across film, television, theater and radio. She has been a Screen International Star of Tomorrow, a two-time Brit List nominee, one of Den Of Geek's "50 Brilliant Screenwriters To Watch Out For," a Verity Bargate Award winner, and she was mentored by Sir Kenneth Branagh on the prestigious BFI/Lighthouse Guiding Lights scheme. For television, she is currently writing on BBC America's THE WATCH, and her other credits include DOCTOR WHO and BBC1's critically-acclaimed 5-parter NICK NICKLEBY. Her stage plays have been widely produced in the UK, US and Europe, and she is an experienced radio dramatist. Her directing debut MA'AM won funding from Bumble's international Female Film Force initiative and will be released in 2020.

Wilkinson's plays include Now is the Time (Tricycle Theatre), Fair (Finborough Theatre, Trafalgar Studios & UK tour), Felt Effects (Verity Bargate Award winner, Theatre 503) and The Aquatic Ape (Edinburgh & New York).


The Sweet Science of Bruising

By Joy Wilkinson

directed by Peter Hackett

Friday & Saturday, February 21, 22, 28 & 29, 8 pm

Sunday, February 23 & March 1, 2 pm


$15; 40 percent off for 18 and under; $5 for Dartmouth students

In a world controlled by men, four Victorian women discover unexpected freedom in the underground subculture of women's boxing-and struggle against the limitations of that freedom. Based on historical research into 19th century women's boxing, Joy Wilkinson's electrifying new play examines gender, class, violence, and the balance of power in a corseted world.

Scholar Talk: The Sweet Science of Bruising

Saturday, February 22, 7 pm

Top of the Hop, Hopkins Center


The Sweet Science of Bruising playwright Joy Wilkinson and Dartmouth professor Carolyn Dever discuss "Victorian Morality and Everyday Reality in 19th-Century London." Wilkinson is an award-winning writer whose work ranges across film, television, theater and radio, including the current female-led Dr. Who reboot. Dever is a professor of English whose areas of expertise include gender studies and 19th-century British literature and culture. The discussion will be moderated by the production's director Peter Hackett, Professor of Theater and Avalon Foundation Chair of the Humanities.

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