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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era