Bassano’s fame has been mainly reduced to the theory that she is the persona behind Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets, but as the show points out, she was a prodigious poet in her own right and, much against the conventions of the time, published her own collection, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews). Because there is limited evidence of Emilia’s life, Malcolm’s astute, robust, and highly inventive Emilia imagines a life of a mother, poet, feminist and teacher who amplifies her voice in a society which aims to render her voiceless. Playfully directed by Nicole Charles, Emilia is a pronounced and stunning play about a past that reverberates for the present.
Charles smartly chooses three actresses unified by their blue dresses to play Emilia at different stages in her life, including her introduction to court, her experiences as a mother, and her time teaching other women. Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce, and Clare Perkins are remarkable, often onstage together, finding support and advice in each other. Malcolm doubles down on the purported legacy of Emilia, depicting her relationship with William Shakespeare as a love affair rooted in Emilia’s rage at not being offered the same opportunities as her male contemporaries. Shakespeare is brilliantly and irreverently portrayed by Charity Wakefield as a self-involved and insecure writer who exploits Emilia’s own linguistic prowess.
The plot is dense and full of characters but Charles effectively navigates the narrative smoothly and efficiently with an all-female cast that is excellent. Luisa Gerstein’s music deserves mention too, for it seamlessly entwines early modern instruments with contemporary music, establishing the piece’s anachronistic flavour. Slightly less successful are the shoehorned parallels Malcolm makes to modern day immigration. And the women Emilia teaches ‘south of the river’ are somewhat two-dimensional, although Jackie Clune gives an outstanding performance as Eve, a poet in her own right.
Anger is at the heart of Emilia’s legacy, and nowhere is this more clear than in Perkins’s final, magnificent speech where she cracks thunder. Her anger is justified given how history has passed over her. Yes, Emilia is unsubtle in its call for female empowerment, but sometimes subtlety is a privileged position to take. What makes Emilia resound most is that through this modern refashioning, Emilia Bassano’s works are made known once again, and she is given a voice
|What||Emilia, Vaudeville Theatre review|
|Where||Vaudeville Theatre, 404 Strand, London, WC2R 0NH | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Charing Cross (underground)|
08 Mar 19 – 01 Jun 19, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£20 - £80|
|Website||Click here to book now|