The Long Hall, Roseneath, Wellington

28/10/2014 - 08/11/2014

Production Details

“A woman who expends her energy exercising the brain does so at the expense of her vital organs” – so said Dr Henry Maudsley, world-renowned psychiatrist and advisor to the royal family in 1874. 

Earlier in 2014 The Bacchanals brought you Once We Built A Tower, Dean Parker’s play about how New Zealand once had the most ahead-of-its-time welfare scheme in the world.  In October 2014, The Bacchanals Are Back!TM with a play that again shows how fortunate we are to live in such a progressive country (don’t let the election result fool you!).  “I know, I know,” says director David Lawrence, “everyone thought we’d be doing an adaptation of Dirty Politics instead of a Victorian period drama. Don’t worry, it’s still political!” 

Two decades after Kate Edger became New Zealand’s first female university graduate in 1877, women in the rest of the British Empire were still fighting for the right to education despite matching their male peers grade for grade. Blue Stockings tells the tale of four women studying science at Girton College, Cambridge in 1896, the year that headmistress Elizabeth Welsh convinced the University senate that women should be allowed to graduate with degrees. 

Jessica Swale’s play premiered at Shakespeare’s Globe in August 2013, and The Bacchanals are thrilled to be presenting it in New Zealand for the first time.  “It doesn’t matter if it’s the 17th century or the 21st – when you’re writing plays for the Globe stage, the ideas have to be huge and epic,” says David Lawrence. “Blue Stockings is at once comic and tragic, intimate -and epic, specific and timeless.” Said The Guardian’s Michael Billington: “Jessica Swale writes with palpable vigour and leaves you astonished at the prejudices these education pioneers had to overcome.” 

Winners of the Critics’ Wildcard award for Guts, Determination, Kiwi Ingenuity and Inspired Profligacy With Zero Budget at the 2013 Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards, the same team of Bacchanals who brought you Coriolanus, The Clouds, Gunplay, All’s Well That Ends Well and Once We Built A Tower are so happy to be back with their third show for 2014 and their 29th production as a company.

Blue Stockings stars Kirsty Bruce, Alice May Connolly, Joe Dekkers-Reihana, Brianne Kerr, Salesi Le’ota, Michael Ness, Hilary Penwarden, Jean Sergent, Ellie Stewart, Michael Trigg and Aidan Weekes, and is directed by David Lawrence.

The Bacchanals present Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale
● The Long Hall, Point Jerningham (behind St Barnabus’ and Roseneath School)
● Tuesday 28 October – Frinday 7 November 2014 (no show Sunday)
   Saturday 8 November, 6pm (to avoid fireworks)
● All tickets $15
● Bookings e-mail  

The Bacchanals are a multi-award winning Wellington-based theatre company, founded in 2000 and dedicated to making theatre accessible to all be it economically, intellectually or geographically. They want theatre to remain a place for social, spiritual and psychological debate but more than anything they just want audiences to have a great time in their company. Their work has ranged from the Ancient Greeks to Shakespeare to new New Zealand works and the NZ premieres of current overseas plays. 

Tess Moffat a curious girl Hilary Penwarden 
Celia Willbond a fragile hard-worker Ellie Stewart 
Carolyn Addison an early Bohemian Brianne Kerr  |
Maeve Sullivan a mystery Alice May Connolly

Will Bennett Tess’ friend; a student at King’s Joe Dekkers-Reihana
Ralph Mayhew a student at Trinity Aidan Weekes
Lloyd a student at Trinity Michael Trigg
Holmes a student at Trinity Salesi Le’ota
Edwards a student at Trinity Michael Ness

Elizabeth Welsh Mistress of Girton College Jean Sergent
Dr Maudsley renowned psychiatrist Michael Ness
Mr Banks a lecturer at Girton and Trinity Walter Plinge
Miss Blake a lecturer at Girton Kirsty Bruce
Professor Collins a lecturer at Trinity Michael Ness
Professor Anderson a lecturer at Trinity Michael Trigg
Professor Radleigh a board member at Trinity Salesi Le’ota
Minnie the housemaid Jean Sergent

Mr Peck the gardener and maintenance man Michael Ness
Miss Bott the chaperone Aidan Weekes & Salesi Le’ota
Billy Sullivan Maeve’s brother Michael Trigg
Mrs Lindley shopkeeper at the haberdashery Alice May Connolly
Librarians, Students, Café patrons played by members of the company 

Produced by Hilary Penwarden & Kirsty Bruce 
Associate Producer Alex Greig
Publicist Brianne Kerr
Photography Douglas Chubb
Graphic Design Santa’s Little Helper
Stage Manager Dasha Fedchuk 
Girls’ frocks Ania Upstill
Directed by David Lawrence

Prejudice at heart of Swale’s play

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 07th Nov 2014

Jessica Swale dedicates her first play, Blue Stockings, to Malala Yousafzai, whose campaign for women’s education today makes the problems faced by the women attending Girton College, Cambridge in 1896 seem almost insignificant. 

However, the story the playwright has to tell is an interesting one concerning four young women (the playwright describes them as ‘feisty’) who attend Girton College in 1896.

Under the leadership of Elizabeth Welsh, the Mistress of the College, they studied the sciences at the University alongside the men but they are not allowed to graduate.

Degrees for women are considered a dangerous idea and it is deemed perilous for women to be involved in intellectual pursuits. It took until 1948 for women to be awarded degrees at Cambridge.

The prejudice they have to face in the play could be seen as heartless misogyny, but, as the playwright points out in her introduction to the play, the men are simply expressing the prevailing opinions of the time; they are not, she says, the devils of the piece.

However, The Bacchanals’ boisterous production has emphasised the melodramatic elements in Jessica Swale’s play and has turned some of the men into the devils of the piece with one or two speeches so vehemently performed that one can easily imagine the actors wearing swirling black capes and the audience being invited to boo and hiss.

Subtlety is not the name of the game what with a love story of unrequited love being sweetly requited as well as a young working class woman being dramatically forced to choose between her passion for new horizons and her traditional role of staying at home and looking after the family. All of which looks as if the playwright’s eyes were on a possible television series.

The Bacchanals’ repertory company throw themselves into the production with their usual brio and were even able to keep the howling northerly at a distance.


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As enlightening as it is entertaining

Review by John Smythe 29th Oct 2014

Book now* then read this at your leisure. It’s a brilliant play with a large cast that you won’t see anywhere else in Wellington any time soon.

Who knew? I didn’t. Having now seen this splendid play, it seems astonishing ‘The Battling of the Blue Stockings’ – note: battling not battle – (1896-1948) is not as lodged in our consciousness as the countless other events that brought fundamental change to Britain back when we still called it ‘home’. Not that the women seeking a higher education at Cambridge University, and a degree to prove it, saw their quest as warfare. It was institutional resistance and individual rage that escalated the conflict.

Attempting to prove the superiority of the male intellect, Dr Henry Maudsley, world-renowned psychiatrist and advisor to the royal family in 1874, declared, “A woman who expends her energy exercising the brain does so at the expense of her vital organs.” His excuse for proof? “Mental taxation in a woman can lead to atrophy, mania, or worse – leave her incapacitated as a mother. This is not an opinion. It is a fact of nature.” This is what they were up against.

To this day the Girton College website itself glosses over what happened, simply stating: “Girton has a proud history as an institution that changed the world. Founded in 1869 by Emily Davies, Barbara Bodichon and Lady Stanley, the College is distinctive for being Britain’s first residential college for women offering an education at degree level.” They don’t mention it took 27 years for a vote to be taken to allow women to actually graduate with a degree and another 52 years for it to pass, making Cambridge the last British university to mature in that way.

It has taken new British playwright Jessica Swale to reveal the nature of the struggle, focussing on 1896, with this her first and very recent play. Blue Stockings was developed during 2012 at the National Theatre Studio and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) then further developed for its first full production at Shakespeare’s Globe from August to October last year, where The Bacchanals’ director David Lawrence saw it. His belief that “it would be amazing in Wellington” is correct, given ‘class struggle’ remains a post-election issue here (witness the continued opposition to pay equity for care-givers) and freedom-limiting fundamentalism continues to be a festering global issue.  

Blue Stockings is also a perfect fit for The Bacchanals’ house style. We are guided to and welcomed into The Long Hall by the cast and offered a cuppa by some while others play and sing songs … The traverse setting allows for male v female polarities, as and when appropriate; actor-managed transitions between the many scenes are visible and seamless; costumes and props suggest the period with playful flair without being pedantic, and are juxtaposed with the odd amusing anachronism; voices are clear, natural and not given accents except where ‘class’ is a critical element. (Personally I could do without the odd American pronunciation – e.g. ‘fradge-ill’ for fragile; progg-ress for progress – but that’s just me.)

The Harrow school song, ‘Forty Years On’ (also beloved by Wellington College, incidentally) starts the show and sets the tone for our entry into male-centric academe, exemplified by the ‘wisdom’ of Michael Ness’s cocksure Dr Maudsley.

We get our bearings along with the four central characters: Hilary Penwarden’s curious but tentative Tess Moffatt; Ellie Stewart’s studious Celia Willbond; Brianne Kerr’s globe-trotting, proto-Bohemian Carolyn Addison; Alice May Connolly’s quiet but stubborn Maeve Sullivan, even more of a ‘fish out of water’ than the others. 

All four establish very distinctive characters, each dealing with different circumstances and expressing in their own ways their passion and commitment to their chosen branch of science while becoming united in their common cause. Tess gets to take the biggest roller-coaster ride while Maeve’s story encapsulates a woman’s lot in a powerfully poignant way and both are affectingly portrayed. When Kerr’s Caroline grows into her skin more, instead of being demonstrated, she will be even funnier. 

Presiding over their studies and wellbeing is Jean Sergent’s pragmatic Elizabeth Welsh, Mistress of Girton, deeply committed to achieving the right to a degree for her ‘girls’ yet firmly opposed to the radicalism of the Suffragette movement. “Degrees by degrees” is her motto. An impressive performance.

Intellectual rigour is exemplified in Kirsty Bruce’s mercurial Miss Blake, who lectures in Moral Science (for which read Philosophy and Ethics). Early in the play, her stimulating enquiry into what might make each student happy is bound to engage every audience member.

Lawrence’s alter-ego Walter Plinge plays the infectiously enthusiastic Mr Banks, who lectures at Trinity College as well as Girton. The dilemma he faces later in the play, where self-advancement clashes with principles of fairness, is but one of the means by which Swale’s play engages us at the ‘What would I do?’ level.

While all the men have to adjust to women on campus who are not their maids but aspiring to be their equals – witnessing a woman ASTRIDE a bicycle is a shock for all! – some are more accommodating than others. It’s a shame, however, that two key examples are characterised as rather wet and weak.

Joe Dekkers-Reihanna’s student at Kings, Will Bennett, is a childhood friend of Tess and has promised her father he will look after her. Aidan Weeks’ Trinity student, Ralph Mayhew, shares Tess’s passion for cosmology and astrophysics. It seems to me that the more ‘worthy’ they seem of her affections, the more dramatic the question of her choices becomes. Penwarden’s journey through Tess’s intellectual and emotional peaks and troughs is very compelling nevertheless.

A trio of Trinity students – Lloyd (Michael Trigg), Holmes (Salesi Le’ota) and Edwards (Michael Ness) – typify the privileged chaps whose world is their oyster; who are free not only to graduate and slip into lucrative careers but also to hoon about Cambridge with their scragging and drinking games: unthinkable behaviour for the women. Sure Tess sneaks out to the orchard to study her beloved stars and Carolyn takes them off to Paris for the hols – but their having a crack at the Can-Can as a result is very quickly repressed.   

Trigg, Ness and Le’ota also play the establishment’s triumvirate of Professors – Collins, Anderson and Radleigh respectively. Formidable in facing down the women, the resulting battle of intellects delivers a dramatic high-point, bang on target.  

But the climax is the all-important vote, in which only University members (all male, of course) may vote. For a modern day audience, especially in enlightened Aotearoa New Zealand (do you know it was 1877 when Kate Edger graduated with a BA in Latin and Mathematics from the University of New Zealand, becoming the first woman in New Zealand to gain a university degree and the first woman in the British Empire to earn a BA?) it seems inevitable the vote must go the women’s way …

Fear and loathing of women in academe at its most extreme is personified in Lloyd, powerfully played by Trigg to ensure we recognise behaviours that exist to this day, in fear-based yet vicious antipathies to religious, political or sexual preferences. The fearsome riot he and his kind foment is also part of today’s social fabric – and dynamically evoked in this production.

Given the argument made for excluding women from tertiary study, the play locates ‘hysteria’ with telling accuracy. 

As presented by the inimitable Bacchanals, Blue Stockings is as enlightening as it is entertaining in the most profound sense of the term.  

*Bookings: e-mail


The Bacchanals November 2nd, 2014

ATTENTION: Our show on Saturday 8 November will begin an hour earlier than usual to avoid the hooliganism of fire works! 6pm start! That also means we will be done in time for y'all to watch the sparkley times with a great view from Point Jerningham. WIN WIN!

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