July this year will see the 60th anniversary of the last hanging of a woman in the United Kingdom. The woman was Ruth Ellis, a London nightclub hostess, divorcée and mother of two. Her crime was murder; she shot her lover, David Blakely, four times. The crime attracted a great deal of press attention, and her death sentence provoked angry protests by those wanting abolition for the death penalty.
At the time, and often since, Ruth Ellis has been painted as nothing more than a jealous, cold-hearted strumpet, who shot her boyfriend – the well-to-do, promising young racing driver – in a pique of jealousy. But that is to only give a blinkered view of the situation, to not look at Ruth’s life and what might have prompted a woman – who ran a high-end nightclub, who had celebrity friends and who’d even had a minor role in a Diana Dors film – to throw away a promising future when she would have known the penalty that faced her.
In truth, the domestic violence that Ruth suffered at the hands of David Blakely, only the latest in a string of abusive men in her life, was a crucial side of the case that many either failed to see or chose to ignore. So too were the personal tragedies Ruth suffered in the months before the shooting, which must surely have affected a usually calm and level-headed woman in a way many of us would find hard to imagine. There’s no doubt that she committed the crime – but what we can doubt is whether the abuse and mental suffering was ever given the attention it deserved.
In 1955, nobody really spoke about domestic violence or mental heatlh. Even in what we like to think are enlightened modern times, people still close their eyes to them – on the rare occasions they can be seen. Ruth’s story is as relevant today as it was 60 years ago.
And this is where the shameful plug comes in. Amanda Whittington’s play, The Thrill of Love, looks at Ruth’s story with all due sensitivity – showing, from her perspective, the troubled private life that led her to commit murder. I’m directing this play at The Royalty Theatre, Sunderland, with performances from 23rd to 28th March 2015. This paragraph might seem like cynical commercialism, but it’s an amateur production, not for profit, and for the reasons given above, it’s a story I believe needs to be told. Please come along if you can.