The Theatreguide.London Review
Vaudeville Theatre 2019
A footnote to literary
history has been turned into an angry, joyous, rousing and inventively
entertaining feminist shout in this play first seen for a very short run
at the Globe last year.
A bit of background pedantry.
Along with his plays Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, some addressed to or
describing an alluring and unconventionally beautiful woman. Through the
centuries English professors with time on their hands have speculated that
there might have been an actual 'Dark Lady' in Shakespeare's life. One
name posited is Emilia Bassano.
Using what little is known of
Emilia – daughter of Italian court musicians, mistress of one nobleman and
wife of another, author of one slim volume of poetry – Morgan Lloyd
Malcolm's play imagines a personality for her and discovers a very modern
Driven by a 21st century –
or, more accurately, a 1960s-70s feminist anger, this Emilia rails against
male society for limiting the prospects of women and stifling their
voices, while writing and inspiring others to write samizdat and
Emilia is played by three
actors – Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce and Clare Perkins – representing
her at different ages, the two not playing her at any moment remaining on
stage to comment on the action.
Coomber carries much of the
acting burden, capturing the energy, mounting frustration and inventive
subversion of a woman too big for the social roles allotted her. Perkins
has the primary narrative and choric voice, moving from almost-resigned
irony to re-awakened and openly expressed anger.
All other characters,
including the male ones, are played by women, and the entire creative
team, from playwright Malcolm and director Nicole Charles on, is female.
The play opens with Emilia
being educated for a conventional – that is to say, essentially silent and
decorative – upper-class female life. But even while she navigates an
affair with one powerful man and marriage with another (with time for a
passionate romance with William Shakespeare on the side), she writes
rebelliously feminist poetry and chafes at being unable to publish it.
The playwright tells this
story with mounting anger, primarily expressed through Clare Perkins'
narrative commentary, which culminates in an impassioned call to
revolution that brings the women (and many of the men) in the audience to
their feet. (It is this rage, as if gender injustice was being first
realised, that gives the play's sexual politics a fifty-year-old feel.)
But the play's darkness is
tempered by moments of high and low comedy and a general delight in
performance, as when Emilia's pillow talk with Shakespeare is filled with
phrases and images that are going to wind up in his plays, or when the
social dance is represented by some actual comic choreography by Anna
Emilia is thus a play of two
sensibilities and tones, the mounting outrage and the bemused amusement
sometimes at odds with each other, but generally combining to create a
I would happily recommend that the parents of teenage girls bring them to this show, for what used to be called consciousness-raising in a particularly inventive and inspiring form. But even ageing males like me – and everyone in between – can find a lot to enjoy.
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