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Interview with Jessica Swale, theatre director and playwright

7 June 2013 Charlie Kenber

Charlie Kenber talks to Jessica Swale about period comedy, higher education and scandal ahead of her latest London shows…

Jessica Swale, theatre director, founder of Red Handed Theatre Company and now playwright loves being busy. With three projects currently on the go, there is plenty of opportunity to catch her work, and even more reasons to do so. Her latest show is an adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School For Scandal at the Park Theatre, opening next week. It depicts a world of gossip and intrigue, in which London hearsay and rumour builds and topples reputations.

For Jessica, it seemed the perfect time to revitalize the play, with the writing feeling particularly relevant. “It felt like a very apt time to revive it,” Jessica tells us. “After the Leveson inquiry it seemed rude not to do this play! It’s about the way rumour and scandal and reportage can adversely affect the lives of individuals who have no say about how they are represented in front of other people.” The comedy of the play has something of a sting in the tail, as people’s livelihoods and ability to marry are at stake, just as today a damaged reputation can hinder one’s chances of getting a job. “It feels very contemporary in its themes.”

The play will run at the Park Theatre, the newest in London, which opened last month in Finsbury Park: indeed this will be only the second production in its main space. As Jessica explains, the building’s development has been a testament to the hard graft of those involved, “not a penny has come from the Arts Council, it’s quite a staggering achievement.” The juxtaposition of a two-and-a-half-centuries-old play with a brand new space proved too difficult to resist for her. “It’s very exciting to be involved, a brilliant space to work in.”

Despite a rather balanced portfolio of work, Jessica Swale has become known largely for directing period comedy, and she certainly sees plenty of advantages to producing more dated writing. “In a way it’s easier to make them relevant, because they’re more open,” she tells us, “there’s more room to run with them.” She appreciates the relative scarcity of the descriptive stage directions that can be all too common in modern writing, and the greater universality of those period plays that have survived. “There are a lot of ways to find relevance, a lot more imaginative space.”

Jessica has adapted The School for Scandal herself, cutting it quite significantly, and adding a new prologue and epilogue. With the assistance of composer Laura Forrest-Hay, Jessica has set both of these to music, and also written a whole series of songs for the rest of the play. The use of music can help to overcome one of the potential difficulties of period drama: “sometimes they can be quite complicated! We use music as a way to help tell the story, and it also adds an individual touch and humour.”

Opening at the Globe in August, Jessica’s second project will see her gain her first writing credit for a full-length script. Her new play Blue Stockings explores the experience of Cambridge undergraduates at the end of the nineteenth century, when women were allowed to study at a limited number of colleges, but refused the right to graduate. Whilst doing research for a different play Jessica stumbled across the idea, “I found out that women were doing the same course as men, but for a long time weren’t allowed to graduate, and was absolutely shocked by that. It’s a major piece of British history that no-one knows about.”

Current events also fed into the play’s development, which was leant even more relevance with the tripling of university tuition fees. Hearing that a friend’s son would not be applying for university as a result, Jessica was horrified. “I loved my university years so much I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How come we struggled for so long for education and now are going back to a time when only the elite can have access?” A perfect illustration of this point, workshops on the script at RADA in which the cast were practising a protest scene were interrupted by the tuition fees marches passing the window, using the very same banners and words as in the play. “We stopped rehearsals and went and cheered them on!” Jessica enthuses. You certainly don’t get much more relevant than that.

So why is Jessica not directing this project? “I never intended to write it, but I realised I’d be a really interfering director. I’d got such a long way in the imaginative process I was just going to be annoying any writer.” Once that decision was made directing it as well just didn’t seem to make sense. “What’s great about theatre is having more than one set of eyes on any one piece. It felt quite a big thing already to be writing my first play. I can just concentrate on getting the story sorted.”

Clearly having enjoyed her experience with Blue Stockings, Jessica has yet another writing project in the pipeline, this time about Nell Gwynn, the actress and mistress of Charles II. “There hasn’t been a story told about Nell Gwynn, which I find really strange. If it was about a man there would have been countless films, plays and books.” Jessica is certainly happy to see the beginnings of a wave in which women have more power in theatre, including as Artistic Directors: for example Josie Rourke at the Donmar and now Vicky Featherstone taking over from Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court. However she dislikes the extent to which it defines people. “Lots of people want to know from me what its like to be a female director, but I just think I’m a director.”

Similarly with her work the fact that many of her subjects have been women doesn’t mean she is attempting to overtly champion the female cause. With Nell for instance, “the fact that she was a woman didn’t have any effect on my decision to write about her, just because she’s an absolutely fascinating human being. A lot of big stories that haven’t been told happen to be stories of women. There are as many men in Blue Stockings as women, because they were as important as women in that movement. In fact plenty of the main opponents were women: Queen Victoria was the biggest advocate of the idea women shouldn’t be allowed to study, she thought it would be the death of England, and that women should stay at home and have children.”

It’ll be hard then to miss Jessica’s work: between The School for Scandal, Blue Stockings and Nell (which she is currently developing at LAMDA) she is leaving a significant imprint on the London theatre scene. Keep your eye on her; she’ll surely be around for a while.

The School for Scandal runs at the Park Theatre from 12th June until 7th July. Tickets are £12-£19.50, available here.

Blue Stockings runs at the Globe Theatre from 24th August until 11th October. Tickets are  £5-£39, available here.

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