One of the best (OK, one of the very few) positives to come out of this years’ crisis has been the opening up of the archives to some of the best shows of the last decade. Filmed in the case they might ever be needed, these plays are finding a new audience, able to share their magic after the live performance has departed. A real treasure in this vein has got to be Emilia, the drama/comedy written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and directed by Nicole Charles. Based on the life of sorely forgotten early 17th Century poet and “protofeminist” thinker Emilia Lanier, its trio of actresses filling the titular role each bring their own sharp energy and distinctive attitude. Combined with an uproarious all female supporting cast and fantastic design choices, it creates a powerful tale which lights a fire under an audience’s dreams of a more egalitarian future.
We are introduced to Emilia as a youth played by Saffron Coomber. Her wide-eyed optimism, faith in the power of her words, and the value that she believes she has to offer the world is infectious. Over the course of her life however, Malcolm will show us failed marriages and secretive affairs, run-ins with William Shakespeare at the Globe, and the spreading of a woman’s movement amongst London’s poorest. Adelle Leonce takes on the mantel for Emilia’s middle years, her palpable rage at her poetry being dismissed by men and her likeness stolen by Shakespeare (the dark lady of Othello?), fuelling the stage in every scene she’s in. Whilst Clare Perkins fills in for the later years, her rage not dimmed but directed by the wisdom that comes with years of experience at being wronged in a medieval patriarchy. This rage erupts at the end however, as Perkins commits a fantastic monologue cum call to arms, which signs off its themes on gender empowerment with a bang that’s not easily forgotten.
Whilst this all sounds rather gloomy, Malcolm and Charles do well to fill the years of Emilia’s life with laughter as well. Framed as a balance between an Elizabethan historical play and a farce, its all-female cast fill the role of the men with a risible garrulous energy. The audience in this recording are broken down into stitches at multiple points, as was this reviewer, with comedic timing of the F-bomb and modern pop culture references exquisitely placed. It finds the laudable line between welcoming an audience into a life with laughter and then opening them up with appeals to empathy. On top of this, the terrible misfortunes and reprehensible acts that fill Emilia’s tragic life are powerfully performed.
Though this was initially staged at Shakespeare’s very own Globe Theatre, this recording took place at the Vaudeville. No matter, as the stage has been designed to cleverly evoke the “in-the-round” feeling with a mostly circular, rather bare stage. This allows Charles, head designer Joanna Scotcher and the supporting cast to establish the space as whatever is needed. Interludes between scenes cleverly show the passing of time with fantastic group movement, elegant yet never dainty. Every woman in this story gets their own space to establish their human sides, their loss and their pain. Many of the men do as well. This is no pantomime.
A fantastic opportunity to catch up with one of the most refreshing and invigorating new shows the West End has seen in some time. It’s rare a blockbuster such as this holds no weak points across cast, design and script. And costing as little as £1 (though you should really be generous and pay that little bit more, not like you’re getting your takeaway coffees right now). Emilia offers a much-needed empowering silver lining for these dark and gloomy times.
The Emilia live stream has now ended.