Thursday 12 September 2013

Theatre review: Blue Stockings

An accomplished director, Jessica Swale's clearly been learning a thing or two in the rehearsal room about what makes plays tick, because her debut as a playwright is an assured one. Having worked at Shakespeare's Globe before, this becomes the venue for the premiere of Blue Stockings, and having championed the work of trailblazing women in her choice of plays to direct, she finds another group of them in Cambridge at the end of the 19th century. For a few decades, women had been allowed to study there at colleges like Girton, but any achievements they made had to go unrecognised: At the time we join the bluestockings (Swale takes her play's title from the sneery nicknmae given to female students) they are trying to secure a historic vote that would allow them to graduate.

We follow four of these women over an academic year, although the principal focus is on one of them, talented astronomer Tess (Ellie Piercy.) Like the rest she has to deal with her studies, the struggle for recognition, and the internal politics over what is the best way to fight their corner. But we also see her fall in love, and the conflict between being a trailblazer and trying to have a personal life.

Swale has written a witty, interesting history of forgotten heroines of feminism that's full of distinctive personalities, confidently marshalled by director John Dove. Piercy's Tess is the most rounded figure but she's well backed up by Olivia Ross as the prim Celia, Molly Logan as quiet, intellectual Maeve, and especially Tala Gouveia as the glamorous, well-travelled Carolyn, her every argument backed up by an anecdote from some far-flung place she's lived. Their education is their primary focus, while the real battle for the right to graduate is being fought by their seniors - but the best way to go about it is a contentious issue. Sarah MacRae's Miss Blake is keen to embrace the suffrage movement but she's outranked by Gabrielle Lloyd's Miss Welsh, who wants to take one step at a time - and is willing to make some harsh decisions to appease the Establishment in pursuit of her ultimate goal.

Some of the men we see fall firmly into this Establishment, like the deeply patronising psychiatrist Henry Maudsley (Edward Peel, looking more like Abraham Lincoln) or the vicious student Lloyd (Tom Lawrence.) Fergal McElherron, in a performance pleasingly more understated than I'm used to seeing from him, is the much more sympathetic lecturer Mr Banks, who's willing to risk his own career for the women's cause. And some of the younger men show the hope of more acceptance in the future, like the two men in Tess' life: Her new boyfriend Ralph (Joshua Silver) is a brash Trinity scholar unafraid to stand up for this controversial new cause, in contrast to the meek Will (Luke Thompson,) in love with Tess since childhood but nervous about how it would look to be associated with her. On the way out after the play, an American student informed the South Bank that ALL THE FOCUS ON THE RELATIONSHIPS DEVALUED WHAT THE PLAY WAS TRYING TO SAY but I would strongly disagree - a major theme of the play is the sacrifices these women have to make by focusing exclusively on their education and their fight to be recognised, and this doesn't mean much if we don't see the private lives that are being affected.

Not everything works - Matthew Tennyson's Edwards feels like a character Swale had intended to develop further but never got round to. But for the most part this sees the Globe back on form in its development of new writing, after a shaky few years. The play is as well-suited to the venue as you'd expect from someone with experience there (there's even a couple of jokes at the expense of the French to make it feel right at home with Shakespeare) but would stand up just as well in any other theatre. A very entertaining look at a serious bit of history, that comes with a reminder, in one memorable scene, that it's not just men who felt threatened by the attempt to redefine women's limitations.

Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale is booking in repertory until the 11th of October at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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