‘Blue Stockings’ touches the audience without preaching. Directed by Madeleine Perham, it is set in 1897 when Cambridge University was set to vote whether the students of Girton College, a girl’s college in Cambridge, had the right to graduate. It is a slice of life play minus the hysterics historical dramas bring. You find yourself genuinely engaged in the lives of the characters as they dream and bloom amongst misgiving- their own and that of others.
Robyn Murphy as the sweet-tempered but spirited Tess isn’t a synecdoche for women’s struggle. She is real and goes through her share of doubts as she’s passionate about learning but worried about her fate in the society, especially concerning love and marriage. Sarah Mathews as Carolyn and Alexander Wilson as goofy Edwards add humour to the play without being over the top. Chistopher Evans makes you hate his character Lloyd, the chauvinistic, narrow-minded Trinity undergrad. Thomas Lodge nails the nuances of Will, as he supports Tess and patronizes her, as he is kind but slightly bitter.
The characters of the staff are also believable. They struggle to choose between their ambition and their cause. The politics they have to play to achieve their goal disheartens them as they strive to keep a balance between being austere and inspirational. Ms. Blake (Sarah Head) is a fiery rebel, forever provoking the girls (and the audience) to think out of the box. James Arnold is loveable as the batty, eccentric physics professor who has to fight his own demons. Kate Tuohy deals with the character of a tricky Ms. Welsh, who, once she has started up this storm, is high-strung and indignant but simultaneously patient and wise, carefully weighing her actions.
Under the garb of history, the play cleverly manages to scratch beneath the surface of current education discourse that we might not be comfortable questioning. It deals with the theme of looking at education through less orthodox ways of learning, of valuing not knowledge but the fact that we’re learning how to think. The idea of science versus the arts and of science through arts is still being vigorously debated. It also addresses a sore spot- whether the right to education is only a right for the privileged who can afford it. Oxford could not be a more apt place to ponder over this.
We may now think it inconceivable to have to choose between knowledge and ‘love’ as we enjoy equal rights and privileges as Oxford students. But the heat of misogyny has not been completely vanquished. We have come a long way, as the play reminds us, but the journey isn’t over it.
“Blue Stockings” runs at the Simpkins Lee Theatre at LMH from 21st – 24th of May.