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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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