As Welsh theatre embarks on the daunting yet essential return to live amidst the collateral of a still tangible pandemic, Gareth Smith considers one of the first productions to bravely take to the stage, Blue Stockings, an Everyman theatrical production which – against the odds – perseveres to offer its audience a much-craved live offering.
Blue Stockings, based on the true story of female students fighting for the right to graduate from a Cambridge College, opened at the Chapter Arts Centre on Tuesday evening. Jessica Swale’s script deftly explores the complexities of the struggle, eschewing a simplistic narrative of celebration and defiance in favour of one that acknowledges the compromises, sacrifices and outright losses involved in effecting social change. While the play naturally fosters sympathy and support for its collection of female students, it also continually reminds us of the exclusive and privileged context in which these feminist debates even merited consideration. Its arrival in Chapter is a particularly timely exploration of the control exercised over women’s rights by misogyny, pathologisation and institutional gatekeeping, aided considerably by several effective monologues (by protagonist Tess and teacher Mrs Welsh) that powerfully reiterate the play’s central message.
The arrival of Blue Stockings at Chapter is not only significant because of its political themes, but also because it is one of the first live performances to return to the arts centre since the pandemic began. As such, it serves as a useful example of what to expect from theatrical productions in the immediate re-opening period. Although venues have implemented increased safety measures and relaxed social distancing, Covid will continue to influence our experience of stage drama for the foreseeable future.
Originally (and unfortunately) planned for March 2020, Blue Stockings has been on an eighteen-month hiatus in which the theatre industry has waited continuously to hear about its eventual return. Everyman Theatre, which staged Blue Stockings and is a fixture in Cardiff’s arts scene, is but one example of the many companies determined to return to work as soon as possible and satisfy this appetite for stage drama. The audience enthusiasm in revived productions has been palpable as they savour the atmosphere, sense of immediacy and collective experience that online theatre, despite its many innovations, lacked.
Theatre is, however, still adjusting to the monumental challenges that it has faced since the first lockdown and, as with most industry-wide issues, not everyone will be affected to the same extent. For example, positive Covid tests in the lead-up to the premiere of Blue Stockings led to several cast changes, including a new addition with such little notice that he was required to read the script on-stage throughout the performance. While such quick adjustments and adaptations reflect admirably on the desire of cast and crew to push through and put on a show, they are also a reminder that we are not living in a ‘post-covid’ society and our experience of drama will continue to be mediated by its ongoing developments.
Campaigns and protests about arts funding during the pandemic tended to centre the most prestigious and financially secure institutions rather than community and local theatre. The most recent debates quickly became overshadowed by Andrew Lloyd Webber attacking the government for delaying his new production of Cinderella in the West End, which perfectly highlights the geographic and social focus of the issue. With the additional pressures being felt more strongly by those with fewer resources to begin with, there is a great risk that community-based theatre will bear the brunt of these challenges. The impact of the pandemic on individual theatre groups is likely to depend on their financial and cultural status, meaning that it is the already smaller and more precarious companies that will have to work harder to accommodate Covid’s many complications. Issues with cast members having to self-isolate for example, mean something much different in a West End or large touring production than for smaller and local companies like Everyman.
On their opening night, Blue Stockings exemplified the resolve of theatre companies, many of whom have been dormant for so long, to get creative in order to overcome unprecedented obstacles. Their commitment is clear – but less certain is whether they, and groups like them, will receive adequate support to mitigate the effects of an uncertain situation and deal with its effects.
Everyman: Blue Stockings is showing at Chapter Arts Centre until 11th September.