Vaudeville Theatre, London – until 15 June 2019
A transfer from the Globe, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play about the 17th century poet Emilia Bassano Lanier is already receiving highly positive acclaim as it rouses audiences to their feet night after night. The emotive feminist speeches and fantastically comedic setup of the whole show make it entertaining, informative and transformative.
It’s incredibly encouraging to hear unashamedly feminist words be spoken and performed by such a diverse, encompassing, all-female cast. Despite Emilia being a huge part of feminist history as one of the first published female poets, she has been brushed under the carpet for years.
Lloyd Malcolm has made an excellent choice to shine a light by using Emilia’s rhetoric to discuss the centuries-long oppression of women. The issues, though different in today’s context, are still painfully relevant and Lloyd Malcolm’s clever twist on language mixes the past and present wonderfully. Nicole Charles’ playful direction also helps make the show buoyant and engaging.
Charles has three actresses (unified by their blue dresses) take on the role of Emilia at different stages of her life. Little is factually known about her life so poetic license is taken as she travels through her introduction to court, motherhood and time as a teacher. The mental growth of Emilia is physically shown as she changes person after life altering moments.
Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce and Clare Perkins are exceptional in their roles, thriving both in their individual moments and even more so when they support one another. Emilia is supposedly the ‘dark lady’ in Shakespeare’s famous sonnet, an idea which Lloyd Malcolm has really zoomed in on.
The love affair between Emilia and Shakespeare fizzles as Emilia struggles with not being offered the same as him, her male counterpart. Charity Wakefield expertly takes on the role of the famous writer who is witty but insecure and self-absorbed as he exploits Emilia for her words.
The dense plot flows well, and efficiently highlights a number of struggles faced by women. Whilst entertaining, the ‘south of the river’ women Emilia teaches, do lack some dimension but help the story flow. Equally, the occasional parallels to modern immigration are a little lacking but provide food for thought in their brief moments.
The heart of Emilia and the heart of this piece is anger. In a unsubtle but completely justified way, Perkins closes the show with a magnificently stirring speech which calls for female empowerment. This is a modern musical that shows just how strong women are. The inclusivity of Emilia must also be applauded in terms of it’s cast and audience. From a baby friendly performance to last nights captioned show, this is a musical for now in so many ways. If you need motivation, go see this show.
Emilia runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until 1st June