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September 1, 2013 9:56 pm
Nip onto social media now and you will encounter thousands of young people talking excitedly about their imminent move to university. They naturally anticipate that, so long as they use their time wisely, they will emerge with a degree. In 1896, the female students at Girton College, Cambridge had no such prospect. They could study, but unlike their fellow male students, they weren’t allowed to graduate. Jessica Swale’s entertaining new play for the Globe Theatre examines this ridiculous paradox, depicting the struggles of Girton’s mistress, Elizabeth Welsh, to win her girls the right to graduate.
Welsh (invested with wise dignity by Gabrielle Lloyd) decides that progress may require compromise and stealth; to her dismay, her more outspoken lecturer Miss Blake (Sarah MacRae) aligns with the women’s suffrage movement. And as the action edges towards the crucial vote – in which only male graduates will be allowed a say – Swale sketches in the nature of life for four new students. Tess, Celia, Maeve and Carolyn relish the bracing debates they have with their lecturer and the riches of the library. But they also find themselves in the cross-fire of opinion, ridiculed and pitied by society as being unmarriageable.
The difficulty for any drama in which the argument has been decisively won is that characters in the wrong run the risk of appearing as pantomime baddies. Swale works to counter this and the complacency of hindsight. There are some shocking examples of misogyny and bogus argument from high-placed academics. But Swale also draws many of the male characters sympathetically. And she sketches in other complications for the female students: for Maeve (Molly Logan), the lack of financial support; for Tess (Ellie Piercy), a conflict between head and heart.
It’s nimbly directed by John Dove, delivered by a cast who form a great rapport with the audience so they become vociferously engaged with the cut and thrust of the argument. In that sense the play fits the Globe’s big open space well. Less successful are scenes that call for subtlety and nuance: there’s a tendency for characters to stand and shout their point of view at one another, which jars. And there are too many issues and characters to develop them all properly. There’s great warmth and wit to the play, however, and, as its dedication to Malala Yousafzai (the Pakistani student shot for attending school) reminds us, the subject may be historical but many of the play’s concerns are still very much alive.
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