Jessica Swale directed the first play by a woman ever to be staged at Shakespeare's Globe (Nell Leyshon's Bedlam in 2010). Now she returns to the venue with her own debut drama, Blue Stockings, a lively and eye-opening piece about the battle for equality in education. It's set in 1896 in Girton College, Cambridge, the first residential women's college in Britain. Here the girls studied the same degree courses as their male counterparts and matched them grade for grade, but they were denied the right to graduate, leaving them with little but the stigma of being a “blue stocking”, a female whose education marked her out as “unnatural” and hence unmarriageable.
Swale's play follows four of these students through the academic year when the college, under its Mistress, Elizabeth Welsh, campaigned to persuade the University's Senate to put this right to the vote. Ellie Piercy is a splendid blend of mettlesome spark and vulnerability as Tess Moffat, who is thrown out of a lecture when she dares to question the “wandering womb” theory of hysteria espoused by the blatantly misogynist Professor Maudsley (Edward Peel), her animated objections held in themselves to be proof of a specifically female inability to control emotion. But if it gives you a powerful sense of what the women were up against, the play is equally alert to the divisions amongst the female crusaders. Gabrielle Lloyd's movingly honourable Miss Welsh favours a tactical “Trojan Horse” approach and forbids any association with the radical Suffragette movement, much to the annoyance of the zealous Miss Blake (Sarah MacRae) who sees them as strong, natural allies.
Given its thrust stage and open-air spirit of inclusivity, the Globe makes a natural public forum and I was slightly surprised that Blue Stockings doesn't exploit this asset more. Miss Welsh is the only voice we hear at the Senate debate and the Suffragists aren't allowed to invade the proceedings. With the pillars swathed in the eponymous fabric, John Dove's production does handsome justice, though, to the play's various virtues – the shy charm, say, of Tess's clandestine romantic trysts with Joshua Silver's Ralph and the horrid chill when we realise that he's bowed to paternal pressure and chucked her for a student at the less radical Newnham College. There was spontaneous round of applause when, after a spectacular outburst of chauvinism from one undergraduate (who even sees the women's relatively poor schooling as mark of innate inferiority), a lady shopkeeper quietly tells him to get out. But Swale lets you hear the fear and defensiveness behind this aggression and how this is still a live issue; not for nothing is the play dedicated to Malala Yousafzai.
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