Features Q&A and Interviews Published 27 August 2011

Jessica Swale

Jessica Swale is artistic director of Red Handed Theatre Company. Her productions include The Rivals at Southwark Playhouse, Palace of the End at Arcola Theatre and Bedlam at Shakespeare's Globe. She talks to Julia Rank ahead of her production of Hannah Cowley's The Belle Stratagem's at Southwark Playhouse.
Julia Rank

On the horizon is Bluestockings, Swale’s first ‘proper’ play, having previously written a comic potted history of England entitled Mad Kings and Englishmen. While not a commissioned play, Bluestockings has been workshopped at the National Theatre Studio and is currently at the final draft stage. Swale smiles, “I’m kind of in love with the whole world of it. I knew I wanted to write a play, but decided to wait until I found a subject I was really passionate about. It’s set in 1897 at Girton College, Cambridge and follows four students and the college founder Emily Davies and the riots that took place when male students made it clear that they didn’t want women to graduate. Girton was the first college open to women, but at the end of the three years, they didn’t get any formal qualifications and were just sent back to the kitchen. Women weren’t allowed to graduate from Cambridge until 1948, which is just so shocking! While it follows four girls, chances are that only half of them would have made it through the three years; possibly because they couldn’t handle it, but some, if given the choice between learning science or having a husband and a family would choose a happy family life. If I had to choose between my career and having a family, I don’t know what I would choose, but these girls were expected to make that decision when they were eighteen years old.”

The Cambridge riots of 1897.

Swale was spurred on when discovering that several of her teenage friends were considering not going to university due to the rise of tuition fees. This certainly isn’t an issue that can be tied up neatly like a Georgian comedy, but Swale’s passion and determination to make sense of this difficult situation is indisputable. “It upset me as going to university was the best thing I ever did, but if it’s going to cost £30,000… it made me question the value of education. Those girls fought so hard for women to be educated, but now that everyone has the right to an education, it’s too expensive. It’s the same crisis as 1897, which is terrifying, but also really thought-provoking.”

The Belle’s Stratagem plays at Southwark Playhouse from September 6th to October 1st 2011.


Julia Rank

Julia is a Londoner who recently completed a MA in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck College. Resolutely living in the past until further notice, Julia finds enjoyment in exploring art galleries and museums, dabbling in foreign languages, rummaging in second hand bookshops, and cats.



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