As International Women’s Day takes place this month, meet the women running the capital, who include a West End star, restaurateur and astronaut,
Meet the ladies behind London’s leading attractions
As the world unites to celebrate International Women’s Day (8 Mar), take the opportunity to recognise and enjoy the work of some of London’s leading ladies. From Florence Nightingale and the Suffragettes to Virginia Woolf and Dame Zaha Hadid, this city has been shaped by visionary and pioneering women. For 63 years we have been ruled by one of the most unflappable and charitable monarchs ever to take the throne: Queen Elizabeth II. And while some countries struggle to pave the way for one female leader, we’re on to our second (first Margaret Thatcher, now Prime Minister Theresa May), as women increasingly rise to the top in other sectors of the capital, too.
But there’s still more work to be done. If the global events of 2016 taught us anything, it’s that the fight for women’s rights is far from over. Even in London, a city famed for its progressive outlook and equal opportunities, the gulf between men and women – politically, socially and economically – remains startlingly wide. In fact, the World Economic Forum estimates that women around the world won’t be paid the same as men for another 170 years – a projection that many, particularly in the capital, are determined to prove wrong.
‘Events of the past year have shown that, despite great strides by the feminist movement, the world still speaks a largely male language,’ says the Southbank Centre’s artistic director, Jude Kelly CBE, who founded this month’s Women of the World ( WOW) festival (7-12 Mar) in 2010. ‘More than ever, we must keep up the fight for gender equality and look at the far-reaching implications of the current political climate on our women and girls – from the localised to the global.’
Head to the WOW festival this month and hear from famous international artists, writers and activists including US author Angela Davis, co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party Catherine Mayer and actress Gillian Anderson. They will be joined by thousands of women and girls, politicians, business leaders and refugees from across the UK and around the globe, for 200 events across six days, including talks, debates, live music, comedy and workshops. Highlights include the debate What Does B rex it Mean for Women? (10 Mar), Chella Quint’s one-woman show Adventures in Menstruating (11 Mar ), and sessions to empower women in the world of technology.
Elsewhere in the city, you’ll be confronted with countless examples of what is possible when women are given the freedom to go after their dreams and succeed. From dining and culture to science and entertainment, we urge you to experience what these extraordinary women in London have achieved. Women of the World festival, 7-12 Mar, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Rd, SE1 8XX. T: 020-7960 4200. www.southbankcentre.co.uk.
NOMA DUMEZWENI Olivier Award-winning actress
When Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall had to pull out of the new play Linda at the Royal Court in 2015 due to ill health, it was Noma Dumezweni who stepped into her shoes, just seven days before it opened. Dumezweni, who was born in Swaziland and raised in England, has been loved by audiences and critics alike for her consistently engaging and enthralling performances. She has acted in world-renowned theatre companies, from the Royal Shakespeare Company to the National Theatre, and now she’s in the West End blockbuster, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, in which she plays an adult Hermione Granger.
After seeing JK Rowling’s stage play, actress Emma Watson (who played Hermione in the film franchise) said: ‘Meeting Noma was like meeting my older self and have her tell me everything was going to be all right, which as you can imagine was immensely comforting and emotional.’
Still, Dumezweni’s casting was not without a backlash, as some people took to social media to voice their anger that a black actor would play the role. JK Rowling responded swiftly by telling fans that Dumezweni was chosen because she was the best actress for the job and that Hermione can be a black woman with her ‘absolute blessing and enthusiasm’. Dumezweni once said: ‘I am so passionate about representation because growing up I didn’t see myself and now people can say: “I see myself, there.”’
What to see: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Parts One and Two) is at the Palace Theatre.
DR HELEN SHARMAN, OBE Scientist and former astronaut
In 1989, Sheffield-born chemist Dr Sharman responded to a radio advert, ‘Astronauts wanted; no experience necessary’, beating 13,000 applicants to become the first Briton in space. On 18 May 1991, following 18 months of intensive training, she joined a Soviet Union crew for the eight-day mission, Project Juno, aged just 27. ‘You can’t imagine how deep the [blue] colour is,’ she told The Guardian last year on the 25th anniversary of her launch. ‘There was a window where I slept, and waking up to the world right outside... wonderful.’ In 2013, the UK Space Agency incorrectly described Major Tim Peake as the UK’s first official astronaut. ‘I asked them: “What happened to me?”’ she said. ‘I suspect someone thought that the title would get Tim more attention’. Last year, the Science Museum celebrated Dr Sharman’s ‘silver space anniversary’ with a special event that included tributes from astronauts such as Buzz Aldrin. These days, Dr Sharman still inspires the next generation of scientists, as the operations manager at Imperial College London’s chemistry department. She once said: ‘Fame was the downside of space. I’m a scientist, but I found myself in interviews being asked where I bought my clothes. Irrelevant.’
What to see: The Sokol space suit worn by Helen Sharman in 1991 is on display at the Science Museum.
FRANCES MORRIS Director of Tate Modern
When you think of London’s world-class art offerings, it’s easy to focus on the artists but behind every incredible gallery there’s someone with an instinct for what to collect and how to present the exhibitions you see. For 30 years, Frances Morris has been that visionary at the Tate – first as a curator, then as head of displays when Tate Modern opened in 2000, then as director of international art and finally as director of the entire gallery in 2016.
Her peers describe her as ‘a brilliant and imaginative curator’ with ‘fierce intelligence, and who stamps her own ideas on the gallery’. Remember the giant metal spider created by the artist Louise Bourgeois for Tate Modern’s iconic opening? Through subsequent exhibitions, Morris is credited with helping transform the artist from a little-known sculptor to the global phenomenon that she is today, while also expanding the gallery’s international reach and representation of women artists. She once said: ‘I encourage colleagues to dig a little more when they see interesting work by a woman artist they haven’t heard of before, or to be aware of where women have been overlooked.’
What to see: The first edition of the new BMW Tate Live Exhibition unveils new works by fog sculptor Fujiko Nakaya, and performance artist and DJ Isabel Lewis.
CAMELLIA PANJABI Restaurateur and author
Widely credited with revolutionising the way Indian food is seen in Britain, Camellia Panjabi’s restaurants are not your average curry houses. As director of Masala World, she is the brainchild behind three fine-dining restaurants: Chutney Mary, Amaya and Veeraswamy – the latter was awarded its first Michelin star last year. She also presides over the sophisticated but informal Masala Zone chain, loved by Londoners for its gourmet take on authentic Indian street food. Born and raised in Mumbai, Panjabi went on to study economics at Cambridge University before returning to India to work with Taj Hotels. In 1982 she arrived in London and began her food revolution, opening the first of several regional Indian food restaurants.
‘London is always reinventing itself to be relevant for the times,’ says Panjabi, whose book 50 Great Curries of India has sold more than a million copies since 2004. ‘It’s the ideas capital of the world. It’s great to be a woman in London today – all doors are open to us.’ She once said: ‘The best thing about my job is creating things which give pleasure to people. I try to give tantalising food in uplifting surroundings and bring moments of joy into otherwise pressurised lives.’ Where to go: Veeraswamy is the UK’s oldest Indian restaurant – try the roast duck vindaloo – or head to a Masala Zone in central London for a traditional thali (platter).
NICA BURNS, OBE Producer and owner of Nimax Theatres
Hoping to catch a West End show while you’re in London? If so, there’s a good chance you’ll be sitting in one of Nica Burns’ theatres, which include the Lyric, Palace, Duchess and Vaudeville. A former actor and one-time artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse theatre, Burns is renowned for her ability to cast Hollywood stars in her plays, whether it’s Christian Slater in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (2004) or James McAvoy in Three Days of Rain (2009).
This year sees a new theatre opening on Charing Cross Road – the first new theatre to spring up in the West End for three decades. ‘[It] won’t compete with those already in London. It will be a different, very intimate space in a great location, where cutting-edge shows can be performed,’ Burns said in 2012. In December 2016, she also announced that she’s set to launch Classic Spring, a new theatre company with former Shakespeare’s Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole. She once said: ‘I love my work and my dream is to drop dead on stage in the middle of a speech at a very advanced age.’
What to see: Thriller Live, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, The Play That Goes Wrong and Stepping Out are all showing at Nimax Theatres.
Clockwise from top left: Noma Dumezweni; Tate Modern Turbine Hall; Jude Kelly CBE; Women of the World festival
Clockwise from top left: Dr Helen Sharman at the Science Museum; Frances Morris; The Play That Goes Wrong; Camellia Panjabi; Masala Zone Inset: Nica Burns