Vaudeville Theatre, London – until 15 June 2019
I’ve read reviews of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play Emilia that describe its feminist message as ‘unsubtle’ and the titular character’s suffering as overblown. It’s comments like that, which reinforce the need for plays like this and why, perhaps, the time for subtlety is over.
An all-female cast tells the story of Emilia Lanier née Bassano regarded as the first professional female poet, one of the first feminist writers in England and possibly the inspiration behind Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’. Three actresses – Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce and Clare Perkins – play Emilia at three stages of her life.
Perkins’ Emilia opens and closes the play with rousing speeches about the inequality and prejudice served upon herself and women generally. Her introduction is peppered with sassy wit, irony and plain sarcasm hinting at frustration and anger. As she is joined by Coomber and Leonce the scene is set.
While Coomber takes up the story of the young Emilia her two older ‘selves’ remain at the edges sometimes stepping in to narrate and comment on what is happening. In moments of loss or frustration they might hug or show each other signs of support and tenderness and in doing so Emilia becomes a metaphor for womankind.
While focusing on a historical figure, Malcolm’s script mixes in contemporary phrases and language, the performances embellished with modern gestures and cultural references. It gives the play a universality, placing it firmly within the landscape of the #metoo campaign and ongoing fight for gender equality.
Giving the play a fresh, fun, modern edge it also serves to emphasise both how something things have changed, while others remain frustratingly the same.
Having an all-female cast dishes up an extra spoonful of humour and fun. It is a poke at the all-male casts of Shakespeare’s time and the ban on women performing and while the impressions of men’s mannerisms and behaviour are funny, the ridicule makes a serious point.
Emilia’s story is the battle of an intelligent, creative, independent woman in a world where she is expected to be happy with being a man’s wife and certainly not a published writer.
The cast of Emilia at the Vaudeville Theatre. Photo credit Helen Murray.
Hers is a world of acute double standards and limited possibilities against which she rails often at great risk.
It is easy to dismiss her struggle when you haven’t had to deal with the inequality inflicted upon you by your sex and while much has improved there is still a way to go – which Emilia perfectly demonstrates.
By the time Perkins delivers her closing monologue dark anger is more prominent, her speech a call for action: “Burn the fucking house down!”.
Music and a final dance metaphorically lifts Emilia and her message onto shoulders and had the audience leaping up for a standing ovation.
It is much deserved. Yes, Emilia is an angry play about the frustration of inequality and how it limits opportunity but the message and call to arms is served well with a mixture of sharp humour, merriment and music.
I rarely stand but I did for Emilia and its hard-edged entertainment – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️. See it in the West End at the Vaudeville Theatre until 25 June.
It’s two hours and 25 minutes include an interval.
More production photos below:
You might also like to read:
West End review: Bruce Norris proves theatre can be challenging and entertaining in Downstate, National Theatre.
Interview: Writer Kieran Hurley on brining his fringe hit Mouthpiece to London and how theatre needs to change.
Review from the archives because Emilia reminds me a bit of it: Queens of Sheba at the Edinburgh Fringe.
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