Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Emilia - Vaudeville Theatre

Have you heard of Emilia Bassano? Outside of this play’s growing reputation, it’s unlikely. If I count the number of times I studied Shakespeare and his male contemporaries from secondary school to the end of my literature degree, I run out of fingers and toes. But how many times was Emilia Bassano’s name mentioned? Perhaps once in passing, when speculating the subject of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, his ‘Dark Lady’. Perhaps not. Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s exceptional play sets out to change that, and gloriously succeeds.

Emilia Bassano was a writer, a poet, and a feminist way beyond her years. Within the English language, she is considered to be the first woman to contend herself as a professional poet, and is regarded as one of the earliest feminist writers. Though there is no way of proving if she was the subject of Shakespeare’s sonnets, that is completely beside the point. Whether some would not have seen this play’s initial worth without the validation of this connection is another – yet intrinsically linked – issue.

Lloyd Malcolm’s play first opened last year at Shakespeare’s Globe to generally positive acclaim, critically and otherwise. It was a piece of theatre I kicked myself for missing, and I refused to let it pass me by a second time. Even more so than during its initial run at the Globe, Emilia has triggered an uproar, from social media posts imploring others to buy tickets, to a fundraiser set up by Ben Hewis that has raised over £2,800, enabling young women who are not able to afford tickets to see this empowering piece of theatre. As many have commented, Lloyd Malcolm’s play doesn’t just shout about social change, it actions it. April saw Emilia host the West End’s first parent and baby performance, with more than 170 babies in attendance.

Having read so much about the compelling feminist sentiment at the core of this play, the heavy comedic tone feels a little jarring at first, but it doesn’t take long for Lloyd Malcom’s flair for Elizabethan parody to smooth over the initially coarse edges. In gags that overtly parallel many of Shakespeare’s dramatic devices, the comedy is feverishly farcical, yet underpinned by stinging truths that burn with the ferocity of centuries of female fury.

“We are only as powerful as the stories we tell. We have not always been able to tell them. Time to listen!” 

In a play about writers, language is both a driving force of plot and pace, and a continual metaphor. Lavish Shakespearean idioms are frequently cut apart by abhorrently modern slang; an intentional reminder that this battle is not yet over. From the flow of 16th-century verse, to sentences spiked with venomous wit, to lines that leave you shaking with rage, Lloyd Malcolm proves herself a true master of words. Of course, master (of any craft) is a term laden with misogyny, but when the gendered equivalent is tarnished with sexually deviant connotations, what choice do we have?

Emilia is performed by an all-female cast of diverse women. And as outlined in the playtext, “it would not be the same play if this is ignored.” It’s sad that even in 2019, a cast of diverse women is such a remarkable sight, and it feels wrong to label this bold; but to refuse to acknowledge the very purposeful diversity would be to diminish the recognition that this production deserves. It is a burning example of the level of diverse casting and intersectional feminism we should be demanding from all productions.

Three of the cast play Emilia, primarily representing different stages of her life, but also nodding to centuries of women - writers or not - whose voices have been subdued, manipulated or silenced. While one Emilia is immersed in the plot, the other two watch from the sidelines, with an overbearing sense of knowing that what is happening has happened before, and will happen many times again.

Emilia3 (Clare Perkins) is the narrative figure of the piece, Emilia towards the end of her life. Perkins delivers the most powerful narrative segments of the text, carrying with her the fury and wisdom of centuries of repressed female agony. Saffron Coomber is a mesmeric Emilia1, conveying with ease the sublime mix of naivety and astuteness, as Emilia navigates her way through the tragic beginnings of her life. Adelle Leonce takes the baton as Emilia2 at perhaps the most harrowing moment of the play, offering a heart-wrenching portrayal of a woman torn down from the slender strings of security to which she had desperately clung.

By contrast, the play’s other characters are doubled, with each performer playing up to five characters. Of course, this doubling upholds the Shakespearean pastiche, flipping history on its head. The depiction of male characters is deliberately ludicrous, with the language and physicality of their performance equally exaggerated, further accentuating the preposterous but potent patriarchy at the root of Emilia’s suppression.

With such a rich text and astounding performances, it’s a challenge to tear away from these elements, but the production would lack its full depth without the movement and music. Anna Morrissey’s choreography largely mirrors Lloyd Malcolm’s successful splicing of past and present, though there are moments when the latter seems to break outside of the realms of possibility. The music, composed by Luisa Gerstein, is haunting in places, rousing in others, and suitably farcical when required.

Nicole Charles’s direction embraces Lloyd Malcolm's immersive placing of many of the scenes, surrounding the audience with the action, from down in the aisles right up into the boxes. This often serves a comedic purpose, while simultaneously building up the tension from all angles, until the audience and performers fuse into one giant melting pot of passion and outrage, in time for the unforgettable final monologue.

History thus far may have stifled Bassano’s voice, but one thing is for sure: this generation of theatregoers will not forget her name. They will remember her story, and continue to carry the weight of her fury as long as they can bear.

Emilia is running until 1st June, and I urge you to see it before it closes.

*This was a press/review ticket, but all words and opinions are my own.

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