When Jessica Swale made her directorial debut at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2010, it was as the director of Nell Leyshon’s story of 18th century asylum life Bedlam, the first play by a female playwright to be staged at the instantly recognisable London venue. By that point Swale had already made a name for herself with acclaimed productions of Sheridan’s School For Scandal and The Rivals. Having been draped in award nominations for her 2011 production of The Belle’s Stratagem at Southwark Playhouse, she makes her Globe return later this month, but as a playwright for the first time rather than a director.
Swale told Official London Theatre’s Matthew Amer about what inspired the creative change, the surprising discoveries made while researching the play and how a tale exploring the exclusivity of education more than a century ago is still sadly pertinent:
I never wanted to write a play for the sake of writing a play, the only thing that would make me write a play was if there was something I felt needed to be said.
I was doing some research about life in the 1850s for a play called Andersen’s English. Universities didn’t exist for women in the 1850s, which I found quite shocking. It was 20 years later that the first college was opened but not until 100 years after that that the girls from that college were allowed to graduate, despite the fact they were doing identical courses to the men. It just seemed so outrageous that I couldn’t believe we didn’t know more about this. The more I dug into it, the more outrageous and interesting facts kept popping up.
By the time I’d realised there was a play in it, I realised I would be a difficult director to work with because I thought I knew the story and all the characters. A writer needs to feel like they’re in possession of the story and that they haven’t got someone hanging over their shoulder trying to write it for them, so I wrote it myself.
Blue Stockings is the story of Tess, a fictional girl, who goes to Girton College in 1896 at a time when for a woman to go to university she was considered a blue stocking, which was a derogatory term for an educated woman. As such she was seen as somebody who was unmarriageable, unnatural and strangely obsessed with the brain rather than the womb.
Even though late 1800s society was in some ways truly advanced in terms of industrialisation and science, in terms of understanding our human psychology it’s really shocking how little was known about the brain and how many people were misguided about what an education could do for a woman. It was believed at that time that if women expended their energy on brain work they would be in danger of becoming infertile because they didn’t have enough blood flowing around their body to support their brain and their womb.
The girls had a lot to contend with. They were not given any special treatment. There were no loos for women so they had to carry around chamber pots and run round the back of the lecture hall to try and squat down in the street. They were not given anywhere to eat lunch because the lecturers were worried that they might distract the men, so they often had to eat their sandwiches surrounded by open cadavers in a biology lab.
The journey of the play is that in that year the women decided they’d had enough of being second class citizens. They were doing identical degree courses to the men and they were passing, sometimes with better marks, but they weren’t allowed to graduate, so they campaigned for the right to be allowed to graduate. The opposition created effigies of the women that they paraded in the street, women on bicycles wearing blue stockings and negligees, which they burnt to whoops and cheers, pulled apart and posted through the gates of the women’s college. That’s a bit of our history that we’ve swept under the carpet.
I’d previously done some stealth writing. Dominic [Dromgoole, Artistic Director] at the Globe reminded me the other day that I’d actually written the Mummers Plays for Henry IV Pt 1 and 2 that I worked on with him a few years ago. This is far more public because suddenly you’re not only writing a full length play but it’s a story that owes being given a proper airing. That’s the most intimidating thing, working out how to do that justice.
I think Dominic is such a gift to theatre because he takes risks on people that he believes in. I did a production of The Rivals at Southwark Playhouse. He saw that and gave me a job directing Nell Leyshon’s play Bedlam at the Globe. That was a huge step up for me.
I don’t like sitting on my own in a room for weeks on end. I’m used to the rehearsal process and bouncing things around. I like to have time on my own writing, then hear it and get people in the room and try it out, otherwise I get lonely.
When I wrote Blue Stockings, I had absolutely no sense that it might happen at the Globe. The Globe is a space that writers almost always specifically write for because of the architecture of the space. When I wrote it I had a standard end-on Victorian theatre in mind, so I have had to do some adapting.
It is absolutely vital that you hand your work over as a writer. Having worked as a director with lots of new writers, I love having the writer in the room but it’s always quite freeing for an actor and director if they’re allowed to get on without feeling there’s somebody there who knows exactly what it should look like.
It’s so much less stressful being a writer. I’m quite enjoying it. As a director you feel so responsible for the company the whole time. It’s like you’re the parent and there’s so much to think about. It is truly exhausting because if you’re passionate about something you put all of your energy into it. I’m sure as we get closer to press night the nerves will kick in and I’ll get the stress levels back, but at the moment I’m really enjoying taking a back seat and watching it come together
John Dove is an absolute legend. I couldn’t have wished for a better mentor for my first play. I feel so lucky that a man who is so often directing new work, but with very established writers, has taken the time to work on this project with me. I absolutely trust him with my life, so a play is easy.
One of the reasons I felt strongly about writing the play was that I was witnessing students who I know, brilliant, bright teenagers, who were deciding not to go to university because of the financial implications. I don’t for one second think that everyone should go to university, I don’t think that’s helpful for society, but I really believe that people who are bright and who want to should have the opportunity. I just don’t think that with the current government that’s the case.
This is history repeating. When we were rehearsing last year at RADA – we did a third year show as a test run – we were doing the read through on the same day as the student protest. We were doing the riot scene with people shouting “Education for all,” “Equal Education,” inside the room as happened in 1897. Outside on Gower Street there were students shouting word for word the same thing with banners that were almost identical.
"I never wanted to write a play for the sake of writing a play, the only thing that would make me write a play was if there was something I felt needed to be said."