According to the films Shakespeare in Love and Anonymous, the Globe’s first audiences would freely cheer, boo and hiss at the stage as though the characters and events they watched were real. Almost five hundred years later, the misogynistic rants that appear in Blue Stockings were met by boos, hisses and gasps – and the women’s retaliation was received with universal applause. One of the Globe’s greatest idiosyncrasies is how the audience and actors are so closely brought together; both emotionally and physically, with actors often storming through the groundings to enter and exit. The storming rain the night I saw the play added hugely to this: seeing the heroines’ skirts become increasingly soaked whilst water pounded on my glasses really emphasised how we all were part of this particular night.
Blue Stockings, the debut play of theatre director Jessica Swale, tells the story of four students at Girton College, Cambridge, whose education coincided with the 1897 battle to let women graduate. The four girls come from different backgrounds, different classes, and different scientific interests: however, all four are bound together by a profound thirst for knowledge to impress any tutor, and knowledge of famous quotes and thinkers to enhance a thousand essays. The four heroines – along with their teachers and a single male tutor from Trinity, who determinedly supports their cause – each illustrate the different conflicts that faced an academic woman in Cambridge during the 1890s: our central character, Tess, is forced to “choose between love and knowledge”; her moral sciences tutor secretly aids the suffrage movement, and another student is forcibly sent home to ‘mother’ her younger siblings.
The central performances are brilliant – as Tess, Ellie Peircy transitions from a naive, brave young student to an older, wiser girl torn apart by love and misogyny, leaving the audience watching with bated breath as she raged over her useless curiosity and intelligence, and leaving us with no doubt as to her suffering and her victimhood. The other three girls make wonderful sisters and sidekicks whilst still drawing empathy and interest in their own scholarly determination. The volume of booing is evidence enough of how the male tutors and students realistically and passionately ranted against the ‘unnatural’ Girtonities, and cheers came likewise to the charismatic and sympathetic portrayals of the men who bravely supported the girls’ cause.
Swale’s emphasis on the girls’ brilliance, showing their minds gradually develop and blossom over the course of their education, only serves to highlight the tragedy of their limitations. Whilst they may have a sterling education, finding a job outside teaching or nursing seems impossible; and as the male students frequently remind them, finding a husband will be even more so. Considering that Cambridge didn’t allow women to graduate until 1948 (Oxford in 1920), and in many countries women still fight for a basic education – Swale dedicated the play to Malala Yousafzai, the sixteen-year-old who was attacked by the Taliban for encouraging education for girls – the feelings of outrage and injustice endemic in the audience remind us how far gender equality has come in the past century, and how far it also needs to go. A stirring, surprising and moving play – highly recommended.
PHOTO/ Wikipedia Commons