Emilia is a play whose poster I’ve seen all about London but never really heard that much about. A couple of well-timed tweets and a free Bank Holiday weekend led me to the Vaudeville Theatre and I am so glad I saw this play.
Written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, it tells the story of Emilia Bassano who was a real woman alive during the Tudor period, and who a handful of critics have considered could be the ‘dark woman’ mentioned in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Emilia was a writer in her own right, but her name has been lost to history. Until now.
The play charts Emilia’s journey from being a young lady in court entering the protection of an older man who indulges her creativity, moving to the height of her passion and her final years. It’s bought to life on stage by one of the most diverse all-female casts I’ve seen on stage; and also by an entirely female creative team.
Many of the cast play multiple roles, and there isn’t a single dud performance on the stage. Sarah Seggari brings a great sparkle to her featured roles as one of Emilia’s contemporary young ladies in court & one of the working class women she later encounters; Jackie Clune is excellent as both the spluttering misogynist Lord Thomas and Eve who is inspired by Emilia to find her own voice, and Charity Wakefield is great as Will Shakespeare, who is definitely the kind of man who would say he’s a feminist but not actually do anything feminist.
The title role is split into three parts, with Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce and Clare Perkins playing her at three different parts of her life, and watching the action unfold. Coomber is fresh out of drama school and if this performance is anything to go by, she’s set to be quite a star, her ability to age Emilia purely through her face and movement is excellent. Leonce potentially has the trickier section of the play to navigate but seeing her finding her place and rediscovering the fire within her, and turning to other women to support her (Sophie Stone’s lovely Lady Margaret) is lovely. Perkins narrates the majority of the action and her final, storming, righteous anger in the last monologue of the play is phenomenal.
Emilia started its life at The Globe, and Nicole Charles’ direction retains the audience engagement and involvement that its earlier space easily allows. A brilliant scene set at The Globe itself uses every corner of the theatre; as does a reset of the stage amongst laundry women (and somehow they manage to make it smell like fresh laundry!?). Combined with movement by Anna Morrissey and music from Luisa Gerstein; the play at times feels like a musical and there are moments that are staged brilliantly in both their humour (the ball where Emilia is first introduced to eligible men) and in their emotion.
There are times when Lloyd Morgan’s script feels a bit too on the nose – when discussing migration or some of the basics of feminism – but there are some people in the audience who will probably need to hear those messages. On the whole though, this is a great call-to-arms to listen to the voices of the women around you and those that came before.