The presence of women at university is taken so much for granted today that it’s astonishing to consider how, little more than a hundred years ago, Cambridge University was voting on whether to allow women to graduate with degrees. This vote is the fulcrum of Blue Stockings – the campaign for women’s right to graduate forms the backdrop for the stories of four first-year students at Girton College. To get their education, the girls must overcome some obstacles familiar to a modern student audience, like stress and study, and some less so, such as accusations of hysteria and migrating wombs. For some of them, in this era where marriage is considered the only suitable path for women but educated women are thought to be ineligible, the age-old choice between love and knowledge becomes more than theoretical.
Within a strong cast, standout performances come from Robyn Murphy, who is nuanced and sympathetic as Tess, and Sarah Head as charismatic teacher Miss Blake. And, appropriately for a play which deals with issues of gender equality, the cast features an equal number of men and women.
It may be set in 1897 Cambridge, but Blue Stockings is more than relevant in Oxford today. “I wanted to show how far we’ve come, and how far we have still to go,” explained director Madeleine Perham. This relationship between the past and present will be shown in the design, with a set featuring modern feminist art alongside performers wearing period dress. There will be a contemporary soundtrack, as well – “’Run the World’ will definitely feature,” Perham promised.
The timing of the production ties all these themes together, too. This year is the 55th anniversary of the women’s colleges first becoming part of Oxford University, and the first performance will take place on May 21st, the same date as the historical vote portrayed in the play. Using the past to reflect on the present is very much in the spirit of the piece. When it premiered at the Globe in 2013, its author, Jessica Swale, dedicated the play to Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman shot by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ right to an education.
With its enthusiastic cast and a script that blends history, humour and intelligent storytelling, Blue Stockings seems on track to be a thought-provoking and energetic show.
“Blue Stockings” runs at the Simpkins Lee Theatre at LMH from 21st – 24th of May.