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

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.