Saturday 11th May 2019 at the Vaudeville Theatre, London.
Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia has made an indelible mark on many if the tears, enthused buzz and unanimous roar of the audience I sat with is anything to go by. Entirely and proudly female-led, this play is an imagining of a life silenced by men. Emilia is the ‘dark lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets and in polar contrast to Will himself, the information available about Emilia Lanier is extremely limited. The play goes beyond simply giving the historical figure her missing details though, providing an unapologetic critique of the world we live in now, where progress is comparatively glacial and women today are facing the same struggles. From the rousing drums of Luisa Gerstein’s music in a fiery opening scene to the same drums and fury in the closing moments, Emilia sets a tone of warfare waged by women pushed to their limit.
Saffron Coomber is the young Emilia, fighting tooth and nail against the patriarchal wing clippers and their female assistants. She masters a balancing act of sweet hopeless youth with a gradual progression to a worldly wise woman who has learned to exist partially on her own terms in an environment certain in its ownership of her. Coomber has her comic side, but she is afforded much of the emotional depth of Act 1 to make it nigh on impossible for us not to root for this against the grain forgotten heroine.
With a well crafted transition we meet an older Emilia in Adele Leonce who does something extraordinary: she adopts every facet of the previous Emilia and her journey to grip us heart and mind within the first minute of taking up the mantle. She is Emilia at the height of her pain and despite only just taking centre stage, Leonce is deeply affecting.
This is a moment mirrored later when our final Emilia steps up, having launched the narrative in Act 1 before receding to the background. Now, infused with the journeys of the previous performances, Clare Perkins brings the whole story to a roaring conclusion – literally. It’s a finale which long outlasts the auditorium and is remarkably powerful thanks to the sheer strength of Perkins’ performance.
Director Nicole Charles’ staging of the piece is no-fuss but charged and stylish in its blank canvas approach. The only real set focal point is, aptly, books. The rest of the conjuring lies at the feet of one hell of a uniformly fantastic cast (donning excellent costumes by Joanna Scotcher). To see a show like this which harpoons the enforced silence and champions the returning of voices to women means I have no choice here but to fully celebrate the impressive performances telling Emilia’s story with such chutzpah… Settle in.
Here, Will Shakespeare is a typically self-serving seventeenth century bloke: taking what he can from where and whence he can. Charity Wakefield pulls off this brutally tongue in cheek rebrand with the most wonderfully understated yet bold performance. Not only does she bring to the fore the swagger and the arrogance but she allows for glimpses of his conundrum without straying from the message of the play itself. Hers is a performance which allows the brilliance of the writing to really shine.
Jackie Clune is just superb in everything she does in this production. She is the hilarious Lord Thomas Howard, donning his ineffectual sword and spouting his ridiculous male-centric views of the whole entire world with bumbling bluster and conviction. She is also the hilarious and ultimately very moving Eve who is a bundle of audaciousness, sensitivity and well buried profound artistry. Carolyn Pickles’ is another glowing performance. As Lord Henry Carey she’s a scene stealer, taking aim at the very heart of male brutality dressed up in embroidery and grand gestures with great comic flair.
Sarah Seggari never misses an opportunity for hilarity; her characters are fearless wise-cracking types with no inhibitions and an undisguised glee in smashing expectations of her conduct. Tanika Yearwood is another absolute gem. Across roles of Lady Anne Clifford, Lord Collins and one of the more forceful river women, she nails her moments to shine and to raises big laughs with an impressive ease.
Nadia Albina darkly represents for the privileged women blinkered to their reality in the layered Lady Katherine Howard. Anna Andressen is wonderful as the imperious Lady Mary Sidney. A real highlight is Sophie Stone’s take on Lady Margaret Clifford’s general shining rebellion culminating in a scene which is milked to the last drop (chalice included), prompting vocal audience support.
Onwards! Amanda Wilkin is a joy to watch. As poor hushed and closeted Alphonso in his pink tights and permanent tortured ear to ear smile, she is never anything less than pure gold in the role. As with most of Malcolm’s characters, Alphonso too gets his gentler moments and in a particularly poignant scene Malcolm gives due to the silent comrades in arms of the disenfranchised women: the gays. Be you ‘other’ to hetero-normative white male society in any way, your hand is held and your pain given validation in this play.
And finally, Jenni Maitland can forever go forth and brag about leading one of the greatest moments of Emilia the play: a genius sequence in Act 1 taking the court to the club scene. Maitland’s Countess of Kent trains women for their debut into the hunting ground of court. To liven up this education, Malcolm crafts a brief musical number of pure comic genius with resounding truth at its roots and Maitland’s leading of this highlight is fantastic. Gerstein’s versatile music births this brilliant contemporary snippet and Anna Morrissey’s choreography translates Gerstein’s work into a sequence of sardonic sass. Brilliant.
Perhaps the most impressive element of Morgan’s writing, aside from the profound wider truths harboured within the scenes, is this kind of slick inclusion of contemporary references from quips to on-trend moves. Her writing shifts beautifully between the lyricism of the seventeenth century cultured Emilia to the bawdier seventeenth century parlance and onwards to precision-timed modern references, keeping audiences from every walk of life rooted in the relevance of this story to their own life and times.
The cloying mirror images of then and now are all here. The demonising of women looking for something more than servitude masquerading as marriage and status or worse, marriage as a means of survival. The demands for smiles. The removal of agency. The use and abuse of female bodies as currency. The theft of women’s rights, words and autonomy. The fetishising of women of colour, the racism and the elitism of indulgent patriarchy. The stifling of women seeking purpose, creative outlets and more than anything else, respect for their views, wants and needs. It feels urgently relevant.
This is undoubtedly a uniquely powerful play. Through intelligent, hilarious writing and a stylish, fiery production led by an entirely female cast and creative team, Malcolm hammers home a stark, dark truth: it’s 2019 and still, the audience is made up of knowing, wide and teary-eyed Emilias.
Emilia is a Shakespeare’s Globe production presented by Eleanor Lloyd Productions, Kate Pakenham Productions, Nica Burns and Eilene Davidson in association with Access Entertainment and Kim De Morgan. It plays at the Vaudeville Theatre until June 1st 2019 and you can (and should) find tickets here.