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A CurtainUp London Review
Jessica Swale's play, an experienced director, looks at the fledgling Girton College in the outskirts of Cambridge under the guidance of Miss Welsh (Gabrielle Lloyd). We meet four girls, all scientists, who risk social exclusion in order to claim the right to study alongside the men.
For some reason, which I found hard to fathom from Ms Swale's play, the Girton women were perceived as dangerous revolutionaries whereas women studying at Newnham College, Cambridge to be teachers were still marriage material. Could it be because the Girton women visit Paris and come back dancing the can can, which was very naughty because of the gussetless bloomers worn by the Parisian girls? Or was it because Girton is so far out of town that they took to the bicycle?
We see the girls taught to ride a bicycle in bloomers and this is reflected in a photograph from 1897 of an effigy of a Girton girl, in bloomers and striped stockings, on a bicycle hoisted from a window opposite the Senate House to ridicule the women's cause. The girls have been asked to make the choice between love and marriage and education, and although they have chosen education they still fall in love.
Tess (Ellie Piercy) meets a poet Ralph (Joshua Silver), expects to marry him and is then cast off because she goes to too radical a college for his family to stomach. Maeve (Molly Logan), a poor Irish girl, is refused the right to continue after her brother comes to fetch her to look after her siblings who have lost their mother. Maeve's cries as she is turned away shows how cruel the female Mistress of Girton could be - and why? Because of the bad publicity Girton would have to face if it became known that motherless children who had a sister alive were left to fend for themselves while their sister indulged a passion for science and an education.
This struggle for women in university education is not confined to the women but to some male lecturers who braved censure from their own colleges to teach the Girton women. When Girton was founded by Emily Davies in 1868 it was sited 30 miles from Cambridge in Hitchin, Hertfordshire and the lecturers would cycle a round trip of 60 miles in order to teach the girls. So having involved you with the history of Cambridge's backward approach, (in 1920 women were allowed to matriculate at the University of Oxford and graduate, 28 years before the rival institution) does this history transfer into good drama at the outdoor Globe?
Going against the dramatic momentum is the space itself as this play calls out for a dark panelled set where even the piano legs have a decency covering ordered by the uptight, and often hypocritical, Victorians. We have to remember that this play is set in the naughty nineties, the London of Oscar Wilde and his contemporaries. But of course Wilde went to Oxford! The Groundlings at the Globe were very tolerant the night I saw it although there is less to amuse in this earnest piece.
Some of the characterisation is a tad sketchy as you feel the characters are just there to make a point, for instance Miss Blake (Sarah MacRae) is warned by Miss Welsh not to participate in the Suffragiste movement, again for fear of discrediting Girton and swinging the vote against them. It would be 20 years before women won that OTHER vote. We shall now always remember that Henry Maudsley, a pioneer of psychiatry and joint founder of the Maudsley Hospital in South East London had appallingly sexist opinions, even for that era.
The performances are uniformly good and the hoorah behaviour of the Cambridge male undergraduates doesn't change much. Director John Dove does his best with a wordy but historically engaging play.
As a note, Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone attended Christchurch, Oxford
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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