Theatre Review: Emilia*
‘Men, who forgetting they were born of women, nourished of women, and if they were not of the means of women, they would be quite extinguished out of the world, and a final end of them all; do like vipers deface the wombs wherein they were bred.’
– Emilia Bassano, To the Vertuous Reader
Emilia: A new play by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Director: Nicole Charles Sound Designer: Enna Laxton
Set and Costume Design: Jo Scotcher
Lighting Design: Zoe Spurr
Choreography and Movement Direction: Anna Morrissey
Musical Director: Yshani Perinpanayagam
Composer: Luisa Gerstein
Production Photographer: Helen Murray
Director: Nicole Charles
Sound Designer: Enna Laxton
Emilia Bassano was born in 1569, into a musical family. She was a poet, and her volume of poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, was the first book of original poetry published by a woman in England. She is also viewed as one of the first feminist writers in England. The possibility that she was The Dark Lady described in Shakespeare’s sonnets is something that detracts from Emilia’s own personal literary achievements.
In the preface to the play, playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm says how “Emilia isn’t an accurate representation of Renaissance England, it isn’t a historical representation. It is a memory, a dream, a feeling of her.”
The story follows Emilia, from her time as a child as the daughter of a court musician, and ends with her aged 72. She rejects the games at court, where the women’s sole purpose is to find a husband, and instead just wants to write. The story shows her struggles as a writer, a mother, and ultimately, as a woman. It is suggested that she and Will Shakespeare were lovers (although this has never been historically proven) and that he used many of her words in his plays, and she was The Dark Lady from his sonnets. The audience is often directly addressed, and cast members even walk through, and sit in the theatre during points of the show.
I had no idea what to expect when I walked in to the Vaudeville Theatre, but I was so glad I had the chance to go and see Emilia.
It’s a diverse, all-female cast, and one of the most talented group of performers I’ve ever been privileged to watch, with many of the cast playing multiple characters, both male and female. Three women play Emilia, Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce and Clare Perkins and they were all brilliant, particularly Saffron Coomber whose acting was incredible.
I really enjoyed the women’s portrayal of the men, particularly Charity Wakefield as William Shakespeare, and Amanda Wilkin as Alphonso, who was hilarious. The witty flirtations between Shakespeare and Saffron Coomber’s Emilia are really entertaining. There are some great one-liners, often including contemporary phrases and topical references – lines about mansplaining, women being told not to take up space. There were times when it felt very…unsubtle, as though Emilia, an Elizabethan woman, had been rewritten to address the topics and issues of today, when in reality, the problems are very, very different.
Emilia is portrayed as a feminist hero for both then and now, and the final, powerful monologue, delivered impressively by Clare Perkins, is one that led to several members of the audience whooping and cheering along.
“If they try to burn you, you can burn the f***ing house down”
The show itself is an incredible blend of past and present, humour and heartbreak, anger and fury. It’s a very powerful show, and although I felt it was maybe a little too long, and the pantomime-ish elements were sometimes a bit much, you cannot fault the cast, or the motive behind the story – to give a voice to the women who were silenced.
Emilia also put on a really special #LetThemRoar show, a Parents and Baby Matinee, the first of it’s kind in the West End, which I think is absolutely amazing – although I imagine it was absolute chaos! I wish I could have taken Dougie.
The play transferred from The Globe, and is playing at The Vaudeville Theatre until 1 June.
*My tickets for this show were kindly gifted, but all thoughts and opinions are my own