Vaudeville Theatre, London – until 15 June 2019
It is not to diminish the historical elements, the research and indeed the politics of the play, to say that its power and its joy is in storytelling.
In an age where playwrights are, rightly so, turning their words towards political statements with fervour once again, increasingly the storytelling of theatre is forgotten. There are a sense also-born of some artistic snobbery- that the only ‘worthy’ tales are those abstract and impenetrable, frankly a pissing contest of pretentiousness. And it’s boring.
There’s not a moment of Morgan Lloyd-Malcolm’s play that’s boring. It’s filled with energy and entertainment. Yes, entertainment. Because it’s no fun to watch polemics, you won’t win ‘hearts and minds’ with abstract too-clever-for-its-own-good work. You know what does change people? Being moved. And through the laughs, the story that pulls you along and makes you ask, ‘what next?’ Lloyd-Malcolm’s Emilia changes people.
Because it’s got humanity and heart. That’s the point. The point of reaching back to the women before, in order to reach forward to those coming after us. This is a play about forgotten stories which reminds us how important stories, and stories well told, are to move us all forward, and moving us.
The historical angle is, of course, fascinating, and I urge anyone curious to read not only more about the ‘Real Emilia’ Bassanio but also others like her. Historical re-telling is a window to the past, and again, crafting them into stories we want to hear, is far more important than the precision of history. So, while it’s intriguing to unpick potential histories of Shakespeare’s rumoured ‘Dark Lady’ and Mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, the story is a conduit for far more; a curiosity of all the Emilia’s whose history is lost. And the act and means of its telling are as important as anything in Lloyd Malcolm’s powerful words.
The assembling an all-female company feels powerful. A great laugh when someone exclaims ‘There’s a woman on the stage!’ during the play. But how often do you get to look up at a stage- a West End Stage- and just see women? And the diversity of the cast- where diversity isn’t made an issue, from a Deaf to inclusion of disabled performers, to a company of women who look like women- of all kinds, all ages. How often do you get to look at a stage and just think ‘look at all those women’ in wonderment and awe?
Is it a perfect production? No, but it doesn’t need to be perfect to be powerful. The direction, purposefully fast-paced, sometimes is too fast to allow for moments to resonate. Similarly, anyone unfamiliar with the subject matter, the story or even the conventions of Shakespeare, would struggle at times to keep pace with the production. And it is perhaps the busy frenetic meta-theatrical elements that didn’t transplant as effectively from the Globe to their indoor home. Similarly, Lloyd-Malcolm’s play has a lot to cram in, and at times it feels a little overwhelming in the writing, over-stuffed perhaps through sheer passion and enthusiasm. Similarly, the desire to give Emilia- and the audience- the story she deserves, makes her a little cipher-like when there would be scope for more of her as a person. But these are structural, and really minor quibbles when the sum of its parts is so powerful.And that is storytelling at its finest. That is-almost ironically- what Shakespeare knew. It’s what you leave an audience with that counts. But while he may consider any theatre he’s in ‘my gaff’ it’s the women’s voices that count here. Lloyd-Malcolm weaves a story that is powerful and political- but because through the story, through the emotion- through humour and sadness and anger, it has gripped hold of us all. That’s what gives it power at the close. Not shouting and polemics, but heart and soul.
There is an almost visceral connection in those final moments. From the women who have gone before, to those who will go after. And more than anything a desire not to let that flame die out.
Yes, I’m still doing these for my personal take on some plays.
I needed this play, in ways I didn’t know. We all need that fierce feminist call to arms. Just as a reminder. We all need reminding to fight the good fight now and again. And the response to it was exactly as I describe above, a visceral almost gasp-cry moment caught between crying out, and well crying. Everyone talks about the final speech in the play and I won’t spoil it for anyone yet to see it, but we all need that reminder to fight and fight hard, to keep the fires burning.
But on a personal level, I needed this play, as an inspiration, and a reminder of the way I love to write isn’t the ‘wrong’ way. Morgan Lloyd-Malcolm writes in a way that inspires- because as I say above, it’s about the story, it’s about heart and soul and it’s about reaching people. Too often I’m made to feel an outsider because I want to tell stories, not create concepts. Tell tales in ways that move instead of finding ways to be ‘cool’. To move people rather than show how clever I am (or am not). To move people, to weave a story and create fire and connection…that’s far more clever. I look around me at the theatre on Saturday and I see children to grandmother’s being entertained, being moved, and being moved to take action. Through a story, a story that moved and entertained, and was made to appeal as broadly as it can for those reasons.
And I say screw you all, there’s nothing wrong with a good story to start a revolution, there’s nothing wrong with entertaining an audience before you call them to arms. And there is nothing wrong with writing something people love. And I loved Emilia, and I’m so thankful to Morgan Lloyd-Malcolm for writing it for that, and for teaching me a valuable lesson as a writer.
Emilia is at the Vaudville Theatre until 15th June. Tickets available here
These tickets were my own purchase (thanks TodayTix Theatre Week offers!)
My Ko-Fi account is here