Powerful Contemporary Relevance: Blue Stockings at Shakespeare’s Globe

Repost: with One Stop Arts closing, I migrated this review here.

In a time when young women are still shot in the head for pursuing the right to an education, the conflicts explored in Jessica Swale’s first play, Blue Stockings, could not be more urgent. John Dove directs a witty and rousing production at Shakespeare’s Globe.

Inspired by Jane Robinson’s book Bluestockings: the Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education, the play Blue Stockings focuses on the year 1896 as Elizabeth Welsh, principal of Girton College, Cambridge, prepares for the University to vote on whether or not female students should be allowed to graduate. The play follows four students, Tess, Maeve, Carolyn and Celia, as they navigate their first year at the college. It is a time of rigorous scientific discovery and lively logical argument set against a background of bicycles, chaperones, passing notes in the library and French folk dances.

We are introduced to the four female students as they meet one another for the first time, awkward in outsize bloomers. There is Tess, Ellie Piercy’s eager, cheerful egghead who unexpectedly finds herself swimming against the tide, Tala Gouveia’s debonair Carolyn who relates every new challenge to a story about some exotic place she’s lived previously, Olivia Ross’s enigmatic Celia, filled with quiet passion, and Molly Logan’s straight-talking and quick-thinking Maeve.

Their teacher Mr Banks instructs them to ride a bicycle (hence the bloomers). As Mr Banks whisks the women through a fast-paced lesson covering physics, geometry and Shakespeare, he helps them to see how the bicycle could allow them to expand their range of motion far beyond what was possible before they could ride – a metaphor for how much further their minds can travel with an education. Fergal McElherron’s Mr Banks has the type of relentless optimism and certainty that the boundaries of education are defined only by the zeal of the student found in every truly stellar teacher.

The young ladies’ other principal instructor is Miss Blake, a firey and resolute Sarah MacRae, whose character introduces one of the principal questions of the text: “If you had to choose between love and education, which would it be?” College principal Miss Welsh oversees the action of her young charges and of Miss Blake’s increasing political involvement with a mounting urgency about the outcome of the University’s vote, an urgency that Gabrielle Lloyd weights with a knowledge of the toiling efforts of years to reach for this achievement which risks being undone at the very last hour.

I am shocked to hear laughter from the audience during some of the most strident passages citing the myriad biological, intellectual and social reasons that women shouldn’t be educated in the same way as men, much of which is delivered with a brilliant sneering disgust and fury by Edward Peel’s Dr Maudsley. While we now recognise Maudsley’s conclusions about the brain and the womb to be absurd, there is still enough pseudoscience spouted about differences between the “male brain” and the “female brain” that we should be horrified to perceive our modern selves in Maudsley rather than lightly dismissing him as a fossil of a bygone age.

More successful in his chauvinism is Tom Lawrence’s incandescent Lloyd. “800 years we’ve studied here,” he rages at one of the Girton women: 800 years of Cambridge making the men who go on to rule the world. It is an affront to Lloyd’s very self that these unnatural creatures dare to think they can compete against the mighty weight of this history – and more, that the establishment is making room for them to think this. As is obvious from the different reaction to Peel’s Dr Maudsley, it is difficult to imbue views that are so far out of fashion with a believable threatening urgency, yet Lawrence succeeds.

But the play is also about love. Universities are still viewed by many as mating grounds, so why shouldn’t this play be structured as a classic romantic comedy? For Tess, Miss Blake’s question about love and education takes on a personal urgency after she meets Ralph in a wittily choreographed library scene. Joshua Silver’s Ralph is the consummate romantic hero as he recites poetry to Tess, expressing admiration for her bravery – not just for sneaking out past her chaperone but for the very fact of her being at Cambridge at all. Scenes between Tess and Ralph have a genuine warmth.

Anyone familiar with the conventions of romantic comedies won’t be surprised when Ralph drops Tess, not even having the decency to tell her in person. The message must be conveyed by the third point of the love triangle, Will. Luke Thompson’s Will is very much the boy next door, having promised Tess’ father that he would look after her in Cambridge. I found it odd that the conclusion of the play, a play so concerned with the problematic nature of patriarchal structures that deny women freedom of choice, brings he and Tess together considering his place as surrogate paternal authority.

To me the central problem with the play is that if anyone in Britain today is asking whether you would choose love or education, you are clearly speaking to the wrong person. Rephrase this as whether you would choose to prioritise a career over a family and it becomes a question that has an alarming amount of relevance for women still – a question men are rarely expected to face. Some of the speeches about this are heavy-handed, and though we see Tess’ answer we are left wondering where the other students’ stars lead them. My companion described Blue Stockings as “in danger of being a sort of Downton Abbey history of feminism,” which captures another way in which the text struggles for relevance in a contemporary context: it is beyond the scope of this particular story to introduce the development of intersectional feminism, leaving the show feeling a little one-dimensional. Maeve’s character does give a nod to the particularities of feminism in the context of class struggle, but this isn’t developed in much depth.

Despite these problems, Blue Stockings is a stirring reminder of the tooth and nail struggle women have faced seeking equality in education and employment – and of how far we have yet to go. Very worthwile viewing for all, not just for Victoriana fanciers.

Originally reviewed for One Stop Arts, 29 August 2013.