While still reflecting on International Women’s Day 2019 I am delighted to be able to share the first part of my interview with the generous and inspiring playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. We talked at length about her play Emilia, which has just had its first preview at the Vaudeville Theatre.
The first preview for Emilia was on International Women’s Day, was that deliberate?
It was a complete coincidence. The story goes they were having a big production meeting with all the marketing people and producers and everything. It was a room full of women and one man. Apparently it was the man who went “you do realise that is International Women’s Day?” And all the women were like “What? My god, that’s amazing”. So yeah, a total fluke.
I walked past the Vaudeville as I was coming to meet you, and I love the picture on the front with all the placards in the background, so how great that the first preview was on 8 March.
Yes, and also on our press night (21 March) it is going to be a super moon. So hormones are going to be increased.
Confession, I haven’t seen Emilia. I didn’t catch it when it was at The Globe
Don’t worry, it was 11 shows in August so loads of people didn’t see it, because it was kind of the graveyard shift.
Only 11 shows. Wow, it felt like it was on a lot more because my Twitter feed exploded with people talking about it
They were spread across three weeks, so it was kind of spread out… but it was only 11 shows.
Ho were you commissioned by The Globe to write Emilia?
Michelle Terry got the job and I texted her, because we’d worked together a few years before and we hadn’t seen each other since so I kind of didn’t even know if it was her number any more. But I texted her and said “Congratulations” and she said “why don’t you come in and have a little chat about what we can do, and if you have any ideas?” And I went in and she pitched me the idea of this play.
She wanted a play about Emilia Bassano, she’d known about her for several years because of the sonnets and having studied them at drama school and that sort of thing. And how she was a potential contender for the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. But she’d also, through her reading knowledge of Shakespeare, spotted the Emilias that pop up in some of his plays and started to kind of go… if she was the Dark Lady… to wonder if she was a kind of muse of his or a contemporary or whatever. When she looked into who she was she realised she was a contemporary, she was a writer and may potentially have been writing at the same time. They could have been inspiring each other and all that kind of thing.
She always had in the back of her mind that she’d love to do a season of all the plays she pops up in, and try to commission a play to be in the middle of that. So that is what her first season was about. She asked me if I’d be up for it and of course I was like: “YES, that sounds amazing.”
I’d come out of a really tricky couple of years where I’d been in development for quite a long time with various theatres, and I was feeling quite a bit of frustration, so to have her say to me “I want a play for next summer….and I trust you to write it”… which was less than a year, it’d be a full production, obviously there’d only be 11 shows but everything would be thrown at it… it was huge.
When you’re stuck in development, with none of the theatres really committing to a production, what that does for your confidence… you ask yourself whether or not you’re any good, to be honest. So having people go “let’s program a production and I’m sure she’ll get it right in that time” …. not having that sense that you’re being seen as a risk. That’s what she did. She had confidence that it could be done and that was wonderful. That was quite a big turning point for me as a writer, because I’d just been stuck in this kind of hinterland for ages.
And immediately reading about her (Emilia), and the fact she was a writer, but because of her gender she was only allowed to write religious texts. She probably wrote loads of different things, like Shakespeare did, but she might never have been able to publish it or do it publicly or anything like that. I really started to relate to her. You know, it’s that sense that just because of your gender, or your place in life, or who you are, you’re restricted from doing what you creatively need and want to do. I started to realise how relevant she was to so many people from all walks of life. Also #metoo kicked off and it became about that as well. The fact that what little we do know about her is in relation to the possibility that she might be Dark Lady, and is therefore in relation to whom she may have potentially shagged, that she may have shagged this famous dude that we’ve all heard about, instead of knowing about her for her, her talent and her writing.
As covered by the Daily Mail right?
Exactly. It all felt so familiar and relevant. It was also a bit of a mission, started by Michelle, which was to give this woman a chance to have a platform, and for people to hear about her….. I just didn’t know her. And loads of people never knew about her. There are students out there who do, but generally, in popular culture, people don’t know about her. Hopefully what this will do is, is jump her up a bit.
Now that it is moving to the Vaudeville, have you changed a lot?
We’ve had to change things, because it was written to be performed at the Globe, so there were some staging things that took into account that we were in the Globe. For example, at the end of Act 1 there was a whole scene that takes part in the Globe. Where she goes to see a performance of Othello at the Globe and realises that Shakespeare has essentially taken her words and used them in Emilia’s speech…. I make leaps of imagination in it. So there was this one moment in the Globe, where she was in with the groundlings and stormed the stage. So we’ve had to re-imagine those kinds of moments. I think we’ve managed it. But it is different. Obviously we don’t have any standing (in the audience), the sight lines aren’t great in terms of stuff happening in the audience, so it can’t be story stuff that people are missing. We do go in and out of the audience, and stuff is happening but it’s not as much as we did last time.
Also with cuts, it was three hours long with an interval last time, it should be 2 ½ hours now. Which is just a bit more comfortable. I would have done those cuts last time but we didn’t have the time. In terms of previews, you just had no time to do any changes, so there are lots of things I wanted to change there. So it’s been nice to come back to it and to change it.
And we’ve got all new music, so that’s changed it as well, the vibe of it. It’s beautiful. We’ve got some beautiful stuff.
While this originated from Michelle Terry’s idea, it’s yours now, so what you do want people to take away when they go see Emilia?
This play for me is challenging the idea of what a history play is. For us this play isn’t a history play in the normal sense of the word, because we were working from very limited resources in terms of what we knew about her. We’ve had to imagine a lot of it. What we did, myself and Nicole Charles who directed it – we researched it and conceived it together – what we did was try to put ourselves in her place, and we tried to imagine how we, as modern women, would feel in the situations that she probably was in. In our opinion, their restrictions and their lives were very different, but they’re still women with similar needs, wants and desires to the ones that we have now. When you start thinking about it like that, you can start seeing how you can straddle time. Because we don’t have as many facts and figures it’s that sense of … if we know how we would feel, do we also almost feel echoes of what it is. For us it is a Memory Play. We remember her. We try to remember her through this play, and I guess what I’d love the audience to feel is empowered when they come out of it.
The vibe of it is about remembering a particular woman in history, but also encouraging us to think about all those we won’t know. The reason why we remember her is because she managed to get herself published. Which was very rare, and you wonder how many other women were out there, who were writers, who were artists, who were doing all sorts of different things, who we’ll never know about. It is almost like trying to put a challenge out there, let’s try and investigate that and prioritise learning about those women over the men that we already know about, and spend a lot of time studying.
The other thing we have done with this play is, we’ve used it to try and challenge the model of how we make theatre. We’ve tried to work out how to make the rehearsal room democratic, and make sure everybody’s voice feels heard. This play’s all about voice and being heard, so how do we make that happen? It’s not always easy, and sometimes you just need to get on with things and not talk about things, but for the most part it’s been quite amazing.
Also to really push things on in terms of who we employed in the production cast and crew. Obviously the cast is all female, but we also tried to push that out into the crew and the creative team. So we’ve got entirely women backstage, which is amazing. Our sound operator became ill and the person we got last minute was a guy, but he’s lovely and he’s come fully on-board. He’s a good ally.
There have been lots of discussions around flexibility because we have a deaf actress in the cast and a disabled actress in the cast. So they’re really pushing on that, particularly in the West End setting. I know it is very different from the subsidised sector. To be honest there has not been an awful lot we can do because we’re a risky production and there’s not much budget. In terms of the changes we can try and make, there are not many we can and, to be honest, it is usually the subsidised sector doing that… and that can eventually extend to commercial. But we have been able to get a few things in. We worked with Sophie, our deaf actress, on when to do captioning performances, she requested that we do one on a Saturday, because often they are on a Wednesday matinee and her deaf friends can’t get out of work to see a matinee in the middle of the week. So we managed to do a Saturday one, which is really good. I’m working with the theatre at the moment to try and work out wheelchair access and that sort of thing, so we’re trying to use the ethos of the show, which is inclusivity and voices, to try and challenge …how things are run. It’s hard, but it’s great. The thing is that the theatre and the producers all really want this, but you have situations like the council not letting them do certain things, and health and safety things, and all this sort of stuff. So it’s like, how do we start thinking around that? I don’t know. It’s a long fight and there are loads of people fighting it, but it’s been a real eye-opener going into the West End and learning all about that kind of thing. The theatre and the producers are amazing. I think that’s why they took the show on, they could see that that was the vibe of the show. There’s something different about it. All the cast and all the crew are activists, and it’s really exciting. Exploring how we can make some changes and start niggling away at things to drive a shift.
And thus ends Part 1
Wishing all involved with Emilia an utter carnage of leg breaking for their first preview tonight. Sounds like a very special show, and it is firmly topping my must-see list.
Tomorrow I’ll be sharing Part 2, where I had the joy of talking to Morgan about her career, how she kept going through the challenging years, why she loves theatre, and why it needs to change. Lots of wonderful insights, particularly for writers and theatre-makers.