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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Emilia
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 one.

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 self-published poetry.

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 Morrissey.

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 vibrant theatricality.

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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Emilia - Vaudeville Theatre 2019
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