Jessica Swale (Drama 2004)

Award-nominated Exeter alumna premiers at the Globe to rave reviews

The world premiere of Blue Stockings, the first play by alumna Jessica Swale (Drama 2004), opened at Shakespeare’s Globe in London on 24 August.

Jessica has had a successful directing career since graduating from Exeter, being named Britain's “best young director of period comedy” and receiving a nomination for “Best Director” at the Evening Standard Awards in 2011. Jessica is the Artistic Director of her own theatre company, Red Handed Theatre Company, which she set up in 2006 and runs alongside her writing and other projects.

Jessica has worked in a number of roles in theatre, including working as Assistant Director to Ben Crocker (former Artistic Director of the Northcott Theatre) on Shakespeare’s As You Like It while a student at Exeter. Upon graduating from an MA at Central School of Speech and Drama she became assistant to Max Stafford-Clark (former Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre, Artistic Director of Out of Joint Theatre Company) for The Overwhelming at the National Theatre in 2006. Jessica also works for the international charity Youth Bridge Global, which uses theatre as a community development tool. Consequently, she has directed productions as far afield as Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Marshall Islands in the North Pacific. However, Blue Stockings is her first full length play as a writer.

Blue Stockings is set in 1896 and tells the story of four women studying at Cambridge University. Whilst today this would not be unusual, in 1896 these women were amongst the first in the country to go to university and had to fight for their education. The play reveals examples of the hostility faced by these women; they faced violence from their peers, with effigies burnt in public, and were made to eat in labs surrounded by dead bodies. Blue Stockings centres around the students’ campaign for the right to attend their university – and to graduate.

It was not until 1948 that Cambridge University would allow female students to graduate, despite allowing them to sit the same exams as male students.  Jessica comments, “I for one was, until recently, blissfully unaware of the sacrifices my not-too-distant relations had made to win us that right but the issue at the heart of the play is as pertinent now as ever. As we rehearsed the 1897 protest at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) last year, we stopped to watch thousands of students march along Gower Street below, holding banners identical to ours: Education For All. It was a disquieting moment.”

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre has a long association with Exeter’s Drama department, hosting MA and MFA Staging Shakespeare students for a two week residency every year, during which students engage in practical classes with members of the Globe Theatre’s staff and associate artists. The residency culminates with a short group performance on the famous Globe stage.

Jessica’s production has already received positive reviews from audiences, including five and four star ratings from acclaimed sources such as The Times, The Guardian and The Independent. Michael Billington from The Guardian comments, “Swale writes with palpable vigour and leaves you astonished at the prejudices these educational pioneers had to overcome”. Kate Lamb, an actress who recently performed in The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe theatre, remarks, “Blue Stockings made me seethe, sob, laugh, despair and hope. [A] beautiful, difficult show.” Interviews with Jessica have also been published in The Independent and The Evening Standard newspapers.

Dr Anna Harpin, Senior Lecturer in Drama at the University of Exeter comments, “We are absolutely thrilled for Jessica and very proud to have been a key compass point on her artistic journey. Exeter Drama is committed to the synthesis of critical thinking and exploratory practice and Jessica's success very much reflects that ethos. We keep in close contact with our graduands so we look forward to seeing what Jessica does next. A great achievement.”

Blue Stockings runs at Shakespeare’s Globe from August 24 until 11 October. Tickets are available from £5 per performance. Those who have already seen the performance are able to tweet @TheGlobe using the hashtag #BlueStockings with their thoughts.

For more information about studying Drama at Exeter, please see the Drama webpages, or to find out more about the achievements of our alumni, see the College of Humanities alumni pages.

Date: 2 September 2013

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