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Emilia (Susan Elkin reviews)

Emilia – ★★★★★
By Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. Presented by Eleanor Lloyd, Kate Pakenham, Nica Burns and Eilene Davidson.
performance date: 08 Mar 2019
venue: Vaudeville Theatre, London


This magnificent show fizzes with originality, ideas, passion and topicality. And by the time you reach the riveting, angry, final speech the whole audience is palpably (and appropriately) on fire.

Emilia Bassano (1569-1645) was a talented, committed and published writer but is remembered only as the possible “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Morgan Lloyd Morgan’s sparkling, all female plays seeks to give her a very feisty voice of her own and to use her story to explore the sidelining of women in general. And it’s deftly done under Nicole Charles’s direction with spirited, evocative ensemble work, talented actor musicians playing two flutes and cello and three actors playing Emilia at different stages of her long life.

In places the lack of equivocation in Morgan’s script makes you gasp in admiration and it’s often very funny. One of the play’s contentions is that Emilia’s words and ideas were often noted and “recycled” by her lover, Shakespeare. Thus the text frequently dances in and out of snippets from the plays and sonnets. Clever stuff – woven into patches of deliciously incongruous modern dialogue including references to, for example, radar. Yes, the thoughts are timeless.

Clare Perkins is splendidly controlled as Emila 3, the oldest of the trio. She is onstage much of the time as a quasi narrator but the play begins and ends with her and she hits you straight between the eyes. Saffron Coomber is strong as the youngest Emilia, already determined not to be walked over and Adelle Leonce is moving as the middle one.

But really it’s the ensemble – cast diversely in every sense – which drives the piece so effectively. They sing and croon. The movement work is vibrant and there are some terrific scenes featuring a group of washer women from “south of the river”.

This exciting play was commissioned by Michelle Terry for Shakespeare’s Globe last summer. It has now transferred into the West End but there are enough Bankside and Globe references to ensure that you never forget its origins.

First published by Sardines:
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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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