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Emilia by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm at the Vaudeville Theatre

The cast of Emilia at the Vaudeville Theatre. Photo credit Helen Murray.
The cast of Emilia at the Vaudeville Theatre. Photo credit Helen Murray.

I once heard a feminist advising fellow feminists not to commit arson, because in addition to the obvious risk of innocent lives, this was the sort of thing that the ‘establishment’ would like feminists to do. The feminists would then most likely be arrested, charged and put on trial, and the establishment can say something like, “Look, this is what feminists are like! Terrible people!” And yet, Emilia 3 (Clare Perkins) admonishes the Vaudeville Theatre audience to “burn the f-king house down!” With that, Emilia ends, but not before a celebratory dance, which I found quite bizarre, because it immediately followed a sombre speech in which it became clear that there is still, in the twenty-first century, a significant amount of work to do. What exactly were these women celebrating?

Taken literally, the play suggests that ‘Will’ Shakespeare (Charity Wakefield) never wrote anything at all of his own accord, with Emilia Lanier (nee Bassano) (1569-1645) having all her ideas stolen by the Bard. Even the Emilia in Othello is named after her, with the lines she speaks ones constructed by Lanier. Oh, and Shakespeare was also one of those mansplainers. While the play does not claim historical accuracy (how can it, when undisputed facts about Emilia are sparse), there’s no escaping that there isn’t a single male character who is portrayed as anything other than pure idiocy incarnate. Lord Thomas Howard (Jackie Clune), for instance, is a wifebeater, while Alphonso Lanier (Amanda Wilkin) has no fiscal discipline. Then again, there are plenty of plays in which women are seen in a negative light, so perhaps a few more centuries of plays like this one might then result in that thing called equality.

If there is Emilia 3, it naturally follows that there’s an Emilia 1 (Saffron Coomber) and Emilia 2 (Adelle Leonce). This is not to say there was what these days would be classed as a split personality disorder, but rather to underline that she lived a long life, so there are actors of various ages to represent this.

From a theatrical standpoint, it’s also a departure from the norm of the lead character being portrayed solely by one actor who does so much more than anyone else on stage. It’s worth observing the curtain call: it’s an ensemble play with a capital E, and so there are only collective bows rather than individual ones. The use of an all-female company also reverses, quite cleverly, the Elizabethan tradition of all-male companies taking on female characters.

The application of contemporary moral standards to the conduct of people who lived centuries ago is an interesting one, and arguably unfair. When the cast depart from the stage in this proscenium arch theatre, spreading themselves out amongst the audience, it’s not difficult to imagine how much better it would have worked in the Globe Theatre. Joanna Scotcher’s set and costumes fit the period of the storyline very well. Occasionally, though, the script can be a slog, and I can only agree with suggestions from certain quarters that the play could do with yet more refining.

Look how far we’ve come already,” Emilia appeals to the audience. At the time of writing, the heads of state, government and of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in the UK are all women. History will probably be kinder to them than it has been to influential women who have gone before them, in the sense that they won’t be written out of history altogether as though they never existed. Nonetheless, there’s no use denying that many women must still fight just to be heard and recognised, which is what makes this seventeenth-century narrative relevant to the world today. A smart, stirring and spirited production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

1609. I AM EMILIA.
WRITER. WIFE. LOVER. MOTHER. MUSE.

400 years ago Emilia Bassano wanted her voice to be heard. It wasn’t. Could she have been the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets? What of her own poems? Why was her story erased from history?
Emilia and her sisters reach out to us across the centuries with passion, fury, laughter and song. Listen to them. Let them inspire and unite us.
Celebrate women’s voices through the story of this trailblazing, forgotten woman.
Stand up and be counted.

2019. WE ARE EMILIA.

The role of Emilia is played at different stages of her life by Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce and Clare Perkins. They are joined by an all-female company playing both hers and hims including Nadia Albina, Anna Andresen, Jackie Clune, Jenni Maitland, Carolyn Pickles, Sarah Seggari, Sophie Stone, Charity Wakefield, Amanda Wilkin and Tanika Yearwood.

CREATIVES
MORGAN LLOYD MALCOLM – WRITER
NICOLE CHARLES – DIRECTOR
JOANNA SCOTCHER – SET & COSTUME DESIGNER
ANNA MORRISSEY – CHOREOGRAPHY AND MOVEMENT DIRECTION
ZOE SPURR – LIGHTING DESIGNER
EMMA LAXTON – SOUND DESIGNER
LUISA GERSTEIN – COMPOSER
YSHANI PERINPANAYAGAM – MUSICAL DIRECTOR

Emilia
Running Time: Approx 2hrs 30mins
Age recommendation: 11+
Booking until Saturday 15 June 2019
Vaudeville Theatre

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