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

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.