Theatre: Vaudeville Theatre
Playwright: Morgan Lloyd Malcom
Director: Nicole Charles
Co-producers: Eilene Davidson, Eleanor Lloyd, Kate Pakenham and Nica Burns
Review by Tamera Heron
Emilia Bassano Lanier is a woman following her deep passion for poetry and women’s rights at a time when they were told to be seen and not heard, and to speak only when spoken to. Set in Britain 400 years ago, the theme of the play is still sadly relevant today.
Emilia, played by three actresses at different stages of her incredible life, are imperial. Child and teenage Emilia (Saffron Coomber) is a high spirited and rebellious young woman who unashamedly displays her disdain towards the royal court into which she has been entrusted.
We are introduced to Emilia as a young woman (Adelle Leonce) after the death of her daughter, conceived with her lover the Bard William Shakespeare. Adult Emilia (Claire Perkins) is the play’s engaging and colourful narrator who, like a wise and protective grandparent, watches over her younger selves.
A woman of mixed heritage, Emilia is privileged – with conditions. She lives at court where she is groomed for and wooed by titled (and entitled) men. Yet they can never marry her. Her best option is to be a mistress, including to someone four plus decades her senior and Shakespeare, who wrote sonnets about her as his ‘Dark Lady’. But her attempts to be recognised as a writer are regularly thwarted, but that doesn’t stop her writing and championing women.
We see Emilia at her lowest ebb when she tries to commit suicide before being saved by several working class uneducated women, whom she liberates through poetry. After continuous death threats and heartbreak, she rebuilds and rejuvenates herself before taking centre stage and becoming a publisher in her later years.
Brilliantly performed by its all female cast, Emilia sheds light on yet another woman of colour, consigned to history. Writer Morgan Lloyd Malcom and director Nicole Charles provide us with an alternative feminist gaze to counter the white male one, such as that of Elizabethan astrologer Simon Forman who described Emilia as a ‘whore’ for refusing to ‘halek’ (sleep with him). The play dismantles this untruth with great style, confidence – and modern slang.
Humour is used to great effect, including putting the spotlight on microaggressions and the rampant sexism and misogyny, rife during this era. The carefully constructed stage design allows freedom of movement and swift scene changes for the actors and musicians, with bookshelves serving as an appropriate backdrop, highlighting the importance of literature, education and (accurate) history.
But it is Emilia’s final speech, at 76 years old, that truly captures the mood of the #MeToo movement and grabs the audience’s attention. So powerful and empowering, it is hard not to cry from sheer frustration and a sense of liberation.
Emilia is timely, relevant and combines history and politics in an entertaining and memorable package.
Emilia is at the Vaudeville Theatre until the 15 June 2019.
Picture credit: Helen Murray