Blue Stockings at Shakespeare's Globe: Here comes the science bit

Is Swale right that these days tough messages can be communicated in drama only through big, mainstream storylines?

Blue Stockings
Shakespeare’s Globe, London SE1
Toot toot! A brass and percussion trio heralds a fresh work in the Globe’s new writers series. Blue Stockings was written by Jessica Swale, who directed Nell Leyshon’s Bedlam here in 2010, which was (just so you know) the first ever play by a woman at the venue. Swale’s own first full-length drama is also female-focused. Exploring the early rumblings of feminism at Girton College, Cambridge, in the late 19th century, when women could study but could not get a degree, she delves into a topic as hot now as then – what women can and can’t say and do to advance their lives.
Offstage, Swale takes a hard line on the “issue” of women in theatre. As she told the Independent in August: “I wear a bra when I go to work. That’s probably the one thing that makes me different from the person rehearsing in the next room.” Given her concerns about gender clichés, Blue Stockings is surprisingly unsubtle. The Globe is staging some innovative drama. On tour last year Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn combined Tudor costume with modern dialogue; from 14 September there’s The Lightning Child, a musical based on The Bacchae by Euripides and featuring cross-dressing and internet porn. Swale’s story of four young female scientists holds similar anarchic promise but then the broad brushstrokes begin to show.
The main problem about Blue Stockings is its heavy signposting. These four women are “types”: a dependable central cog, Tess (Ellie Piercy), in green; the terribly posh Carolyn (Tala Gouveia) in lusty red; a poor genius, Maeve (Molly Logan), in grey (helpfully, she’s dourly Irish, too); and Celia (Olivia Ross) in blue. She’s the boring one, like Sex and the City’s Charlotte but with less spark. Against this rainbow of characters are the men, from other colleges, in threatening black. The mood very quickly becomes one of pantomime.
The Globe works well as a venue to start with. The opening, women-bashing speech by the pioneering psychiatrist Henry Maudsley (Edward Peel) elicits a few lusty boos from the floor. But then the girly clichés arrive and the politics get damp. A lighthearted scene in which Tess is nervous about her tutor seeing her mount a bicycle (“Turn around, please!”) turns to farce when she careers off it, the silly thing. Another scene featuring the girls, without Maeve, cancanning in their bloomers serves no narrative purpose. Then come Tess’s love interests . . .
Two men compete for Our Heroine’s affections: her old friend Will (Luke Thompson) and Ralph (Joshua Silver). Tess loses her mind while in love. Be gone, astronomy scholar! Here be dizzy stars in her eyes. For a play set in the fascinating period when the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed, it is sad that Swale gives so much stage time to such Richard Curtis manoeuvres. Then again, she is hoping to turn this into a screenplay and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it at my local Odeon in a few years.
The play also lacks historical accuracy. The mid-1890s would have been early for anyone to know about the art of Vincent van Gogh, as the tutor Miss Blake (Sarah MacRae) does (he died in 1890, when his work was known to few; the first retrospective of his work was in Paris in 1901). When Tess wondered what women could do in war situations, I felt the urge to lean forward on my bench and shout: “Florence Nightingale! The Crimea!”
There are some strong lines here, however, that make the brain tick. Another tutor, Miss Welsh (an excellent Gabrielle Lloyd), tells us how progress for women is usually achieved. “Patience and stealth,” she says, “degrees by degrees.” Certain phrases from the male undergraduates, too, speak volumes. They “can’t afford to” support women’s rights because of their future employment opportunities; a complaint about changes to the rules of a drinking contest receives the response, “We make the rules.” There speaks the Bullingdon Club.
It is powerful to think how recent these events were; we’re only talking about our great-grandmothers’ generation, after all. Swale has dedicated her play to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot by the Taliban. Perhaps she is right that these days tough messages can be communicated in drama only through big, mainstream storylines. Patience and stealth, as Miss Welsh says, but at subtlety’s expense.
Until 11 October.
Serial distraction: Ralph and Tess (Blue Stockings). Photo: Geraint Lewis/Rex Features

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times