One play I have seen consistently recommended over the last couple of years is Emilia which premiered at The Globe in 2018 and transferred to the West End last year and was awarded three Oliviers. I hadn’t got to see it, so it was with a sense of great anticipation that I noted its video release – for just a fortnight – so I could see what all the plaudits were about. It’s a play that rewrites a portion of history to create herstory and although I was expecting something along the lines of Shakespeare In Love it turned out to be rather more fiery and radical than that particular look at Elizabethan life.
The play tells the story of Emilia Bassano Lanier now recognised as Britain’s first female poet and something of a feminist icon. That much is known, but she has also been identified as The Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets and even by some conspiracy theorists as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays.
Playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm has certainly theorised enough evidence to support either of these claims as we see Emilia move through Elizabethan society encountering Will several times along the way. He falls for her and addresses several poems to her – most notably, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”. We also see them enacting a scene which eventually turned up in The Taming Of the Shrew. Indeed, the implication is that Shakespeare was not above lifting Emilia’s ideas and words wholesale. At the end of the first half we see the scene from Othello between Desdemona and her servant – Emilia realises with some anger that “he has even stolen my name!”
In the second half we see what happens to Emilia after Shakespeare has departed this life – she lived until she was 76 – as she fights to get her poetry published. Rather as the idea of women appearing onstage was frowned upon, so were they not allowed to publish their writings; the only exception was religious tracts which is used as a loophole to get the poems out to other women. Emilia also takes up with a group of laundresses who rescue her from a suicide attempt and whom she encourages to write as well; for one of these it does not end well. After her own death Emilia’s work slid for centuries into obscurity.
I can’t say I was as enamoured of the play as many others have been. For most of the time I simply found it too didactic with a tendency to tell rather than show and to tell with a bludgeon rather than a rapier. The need to attack sexism both in the Elizabethan and current eras means that points can be laboured and slightly unfocused and there is simply too much done with a wink of the eye and a dig of the elbow into the ribs.
The play also seems to be attempting to have it both ways, denouncing men for their shoutiness and crudity (and I’m not saying that is a wrong assumption) while being pretty crude itself and overly boisterous. I suspect that this probably worked well in the theatre with a live audience (especially at The Globe) but fares less well when the viewer is divorced from the proceedings and looking down the lens of a camera. It also didn’t help that the sound quality left a lot to be desired. I appreciate that this was an archive recording never intended for broadcast but unfortunately the quiet sections weren’t, and the overwhelming impression was of a constant level of noise; the second half at times sounded like it was being played in a wind tunnel. And it’s a shame to miss some of those more poignant and quiet moments as it would have provided a sense of contrast and a more varied experience; however, it is what it is and there is plenty visually to retain interest.
At least the quality of the actual production and the acting hits the mark. Emilia is played in relay by three actors; Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce and especially Clare Perkins capture the spirit of the poet and her bid for recognition. Perkins’ final speech blazes with anger as she speaks for neglected women down the ages – a real call to arms. Also impressive are Jackie Clune, Carolyn Pickles and Charity Wakefield – especially when they are playing men (I perhaps should have already mentioned that the entire company both on and offstage is female). Wakefield is great fun as the Bard who is revealed as having a less than moral attitude to his own compositional skills and is not above a bit of mansplaining. There are also some spiky dance routines to delight the eye and the costuming and set (reminiscent, of course, of The Globe) by Joanna Scotcher are superb, rightly winning an Olivier.
Talking of Oliviers, I’m not what the Awards committee was thinking of in awarding Emilia the Best New Comedy recently. Though there were many moments which were undoubtedly comic the play essentially tells a tragic tale of artistry neglected because of neanderthal notions of gender. Not that comedy cannot have serious intentions, but it seems to me that the award somehow devalues the currency of the piece – which ironically is one of the very things of which it complains. And talking of irony the third Olivier went to Emilia for Emma Laxton’s sound design which I’m sure live must have been great but unfortunately, I couldn’t really judge from this recording. Perhaps as the producer’s disclaimer has it at the start “it hasn’t had the full Hollywood treatment. We hope that one day maybe it will!” A(wo)men to that!