“The only thing a woman can own is knowledge”
The experience of a groundling at the Globe can range from the sublime (Eve Best clasping your hand) to the ridiculous (standing for two and a half hour in the pouring rain) yet it is a unique kind of experience that always keeps me coming back for more. At £5 a ticket, it is the bargainous type of risk that is worth taking and with plays like Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings, the dividends it pays forth make up for the sheer sogginess of the journey home. Swale is perhaps best known as a director, particularly for her inimitable takes on Restoration comedies but also for striking contemporary work of devastating precision but she now returns to Shakespeare’s Globe, where she directed 2010’s Bedlam, as a playwright with this, her first play.
The play is set in 1896 in Girton College, Cambridge which 20 years prior, became the first college in Britain to admit women. But though they can study, they are denied the right to graduate, their time at university leaving them with little but the stigma of being a “blue stocking”, a woman whose education was deemed unnatural and thus leaving her unmarriageable. Swale explores the year their right to graduate was finally put to the vote, following a group of four students as they are introduced to the novelties of university life, albeit segregated and belittled by the vast majority, where taking exams has to compete with the richer pleasures that a modicum of independence brings.
Swale adroitly mixes in this lightness to the more serious aspects of her storytelling and director John Dove executes it excellently. So whilst we witness Principal Welsh determinedly trying to dissociate Girton’s struggle from the more controversial cause of the suffragettes to try and keep the matter a potentially winnable one, we also see that the introduction of female students being allowed to study in the library was swiftly followed by the first incident of love notes being passed around. She also avoids simplifying the response of the male students of the time – respect is mixed with confusion, anger provoked by fear, the enormity of the societal change at hand never trivialised into neat soundbites.
Ellie Piercy makes a strong presence as the central Tess, combining the joy of being allowed to exercise her mind fully with the heady delights of tumbling head over heels for her first love and struggling to reconcile the two. Tala Gouveia, Olivia Ross and Molly Logan offer a lovely mixture of vivaciousness and studiousness as her colleagues; Sarah MacRae brings a severity to their teacher Miss Blake, herself a former student but one who finds herself trapped by the strictures of academia as she longs to join up with the suffragettes; and Gabrielle Lloyd is movingly sincere as Welsh, a woman entirely dedicated to her cause and fully aware of the compromises that she, and her students, have to make in order to achieve their shared goal.
I’m still thinking about the final scene of the play though, one which lends a strange emphasis to what has gone before, especially given the revelation that comes down from the gods. But as the cast gather for a delightful jig and a well-deserved raucous reception, those doubts fade a little (though not completely) and the mind reflects on the struggle for equal education that so many in the world are still facing.