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Review: Emilia, at Shakespeare’s Globe

Powerful performances from an all-female cast in vibrant production that tells the story of proto-feminist Emilia Bassano

24 August, 2018 — By Howard Loxton

Emilia is a stimulating production that’s well worth catching. Photo: Helen Murray

MORGAN Lloyd Malcolm’s new play, a romp that is very serious, introduces Emilia Bassano, England’s first published woman poet. Daughter of an immigrant court musician, she became mistress to the patron of Shakespeare’s theatre company and it has been claimed that she was the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

In this vibrant version of her life she’s a proto-feminist full of rage at the way women are treated and exploited. Told to be sensible, lucky to have come up in status from nothing, she declares: “Sensible never changed anything!”

Clare Perkins is especially powerful as the older Emilia, narrating much of her story, with, as her younger selves, Leah Harvey and Vinette Robinson: all women of colour, and not just successive performers but a composite character.

She has a battle of sonnets with Charity Wakefield’s big-headed Shakespeare in a jokey moustache. He claims the Globe as “my gaff” and pinches some of his best lines from her. Infuriated, she sees his Emilia spout them in Othello.

This female writer, director (Nicole Charles) and an all-female cast (playing gender blind) give men a caustic comeuppance.

The Emilias apart, the cast play multiple roles: Anna Andresen as courtly Lady Mary and a Southwark woman burned as a witch, or Jenni Maitland’s Countess of Kent and astrologer Forman. Roles range from Nadia Albina’s Lady Katherine Howard, beaten by her husband for supporting Emilia, to Carolyn Pickles’ Lord Chamberlain Carey and Amanda Wilkin as Emilia’s own feckless husband.

Emilia is both angry and very funny. Though vivid in performance, there are times when it’s too like a tract. Its language is lively and the polemic full of contemporary parallels but it doesn’t make you feel the pain that it speaks of, more a ticking of boxes as it pursues its argument. But it still stirs its audience to a howling ovation of acclaim and approval.

It could do with some trimming: at just under three hours there are a couple of times you think it’s the end and it isn’t, but it’s a stimulating production well worth catching.

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