Jessica Swale interview: Woman on fire

Playwright Jessica Swale's new drama about a group of proto-feminists explores a subject close to her heart. Sarah Morrison met her

It seems that Jessica Swale, the Berkshire-born playwright – also dubbed Britain's "best young director of period comedy" – can't put a foot wrong. With awards and accolades raining down, she is the stage's brightest rising star.

But do not expect the 31-year-old, who directed the first work by a female playwright ever performed at Shakespeare's Globe, to toe the line. The director-turned-writer is making her distinct mark on theatre and is not about to apologise to anyone.

Blue Stockings, the first "proper" play she has ever written, will be premiered at the Globe at the end of this month. It explores what she calls the "absolutely traumatic" experience of the country's first female university students at Girton College Cambridge in the 1890s.

The playwright, who "absolutely" sees herself as part of the new wave of feminism, insists that we still "have a long way to go" to achieve equality.

"Every time I have done an interview [for a director role], I always get asked what it's like to be a female director, as if it's obviously going to define me and my work," she says. And does it? "I wear a bra when I go to work. That's probably the one thing that makes me different from the person rehearsing in the next room," she quips. She is not afraid to suggest that we keep debating feminism, the "vitriolic" abuse that women face on Twitter, or the "male-dominated" world of theatre.

But if this sounds angry, it's not. Swale's anecdotes are perfectly pronounced, and strangely, life-affirming. She got her first big break assisting director Max Stafford-Clarke on a play he was directing at the National Theatre while she was studying at the Central School of Speech and Drama. At 25 years old, she had already set up her own company, Red Handed Theatre Company.

She recalls one memorable, "sort of tongue-in-cheek", conversation with Stafford-Clark, when they discussed how she would "come across as a woman in theatre". Swale says he told her: "You really ought to think about not wearing make-up. And you should really dress like a lesbian if you want to be taken seriously."

As her first employer, Swale says she knows he "wasn't saying it at all in a misogynistic way," but rather highlighting "that other people might make judgements". And in some ways, she added, he is right. "I think it's true. If you come across as particularly feminine, people think maybe you are not as serious … as opposed to if you turned up in Dr Martens and your hair scraped back …. It's a hangover from ancient history."

Looking down at her own attire – a dress and necklace – she said she did not heed the advice. "I remember on the way home stopping and buying a book on 18th-century plays by women. I remember going out that night, putting on my lipstick and reading that book on the bus. [From it] came two productions which were probably the most successful ones I've ever done."

She says that women must start being comfortable with being "feminine and hard-working", vowing that: "I am not going to apologise for who I am."

But despite her passion for the subject, she seems hesitant at first to describe Blue Stockings as a feminist play.

 

The production is a historical look at the lives of the first women in the country to go to University. The female students lived in a farmhouse 20 miles from Cambridge ("considered a safe distance" from their male peers), were refused toilet facilities, and were made to eat in biology labs surrounded by cadavers, according to Swale. In 1897, the girls of Girton rallied to ask their university for the right to graduate, something they had previously been denied.

The play explores the scale of the hostility they faced – depicting scenes of the burning effigies of women that were hoisted up on ropes on the day of the historic vote. With felicitous timing, Swain's first rehearsals of the production coincided with the anti-tuition fee protests in central London a few years ago. Shortly after, the Pakistani school pupil Malala Yousafzai demanded education for all. "I thought blimey, there are lot of women in this world that are still denied the most basic rights for an education," Swain says.

She is keen to stress that the play is not all politics. "One of the most interesting elements is the friendships and the love story – they are timeless." But she is drawn to chronicling historical women, largely, she says, because their stories have not been told. "It is absolutely a truism that there has been a disproportionate representation across the theatrical landscape," she insists.

There are other opinions she is not afraid to share. The Cabinet is not her "favourite group of people", the "class system is more pronounced than it's ever been" and arts funding is in a "really dire situation". She says she spends a lot of time fundraising for her theatre company, asking rich people for donations, and feeling "a bit like your court jester, or the poor, coming to beg for money". She adds: "I'm not comfortable with that; there is a fundamental flaw [in] where the money's coming from. There should be greater funding for the arts."

As well as rehearsing for Blue Stockings, Swale is also working on a screenplay version, two further plays (including one about Nell Gywnn, actress and mistress to Charles II) and a "ballsy comedy" film script with a friend. She says she is drawn to the "wit" of period texts, but is frustrated that now she "can't afford to go the theatre in most places in London".

Really? "The moment I turned 26, I got really upset that I wasn't going to be able to do the under-26 cheap theatre any more," she laments.

But things are not all doom and gloom. Swale is determined to enjoy life – especially in Brixton, south London, where she lives – as well as focusing on her work. "It comes back to the idea about women trying to do everything," she says. "I am trying not to make sacrifices, but there are a lot of balls to keep juggling."

'Blue Stockings' is at Shakespeare's Globe, London (shakespeares globe.com) from 24 Aug to 11 Oct

Blue is for brainy

The original Bluestocking Society, created in the 18th century, was an informal organisation of women with an interest in literature and education. But a "bluestocking" quickly morphed into a slur used to describe a female intellectual at a time when such a concept was seen as alien.

In 1869, the first college for female undergraduates was formed in a house outside Cambridge. The students were officially unable to graduate, and it would take almost eight decades before Cambridge offered them full membership, 28 years behind Oxford. In 1897, the Girton girls held a rally demanding the right to graduate. Effigies of the ladies, in their blue stockings, were paraded in the street.

 

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