Emilia, a play written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, proves that an important and powerful message can usurp any star draw.
London’s theatre scene is competitive, to say the least. Peruse the calibre of recognisable talent available for viewing on stage in London and one is spoilt for choice. Gillian Anderson, Katherine Parkinson, John Malkovich, Kelsey Grammer, Matthew Broderick, Tom Hiddleston, and Clive Owen are all rather tempting headliners. But for seasoned theatregoers, it is not always about the actors behind the characters.
Emilia is for all of us
This is not a review. It’s a call to action.
As a man, I acknowledge the irony in proffering my opinion on a theatre play that encourages women to find their voice among the sea of men. But I assure you that it is a true testament to the brilliance of this play that I write this piece. For my intention is not to assess its credibility, but to encourage as many as possible to go out and see it. Particularly those who do not identify as female.
A period piece for today
In Emilia, Playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm adopts the oft-forgotten historical figure of Emilia Bassano Lanier as her muse. She empowers the little-known seventeenth century poet by writing her as a real woman. Emilia’s voice, suppressed, challenged, and discarded, is an honest grasp of the plight of women in the 16th and 17th centuries. And mirrors the experience of female voices today.
Questioning iconic male voices
Particularly insightful is Malcolm’s writing of male figures, especially William Shakespeare. Like many historical men, Shakespeare is the kind of hero we assume achieved what he did on merit alone. We do not often challenge the path through which he got there, let alone ponder his treatment of women as a matter of course. We assume his talents as gospel. It happens with Shakespeare, it happens with Picasso. In this play, Shakespeare robs Emilia of her voice, touting it as his own, drawing power from her. Some might see him as a plagiarist in happenstance, or one who has assumed entitlement of Emilia’s identity and expression. The audience may lean towards the latter, regardless of Malcolm’s fictional frolic.
The best of the best in female theatre actors
Performances are powerful and memorable across the play’s diverse female cast. Director Nicole Charles takes advantage of every actor’s strengths. Charity Wakefield is a most entertaining William Shakespeare. Three actors portray Emilia at different stages of her life, each adding a unique flavour. Saffron Coomber shines as young Emilia, dramatic and rousing. Adelle Leonce enhances Emilia through some of her boldest endeavours amidst tragic turns. And Clare Perkins is outstanding as the aged Emilia across the play as our awoken soliloquist. Altogether, Emilia owns the stage and proves how powerful the message can be when we stop and listen.
Some critics argue that Emilia is too on the nose. To say so is to misconstrue Emilia’s intention. We must avoid repeating the errors of the past and instead trumpet this play’s message. For too long have women been told that their desires and attempts to have a voice are best repressed in society’s best interests. For too long have they been told not to be so explicit or forward. Emilia is successful because it challenges this imprisonment in its own way, without claiming to be the only way.
Do yourself a favour and go see it
Emilia is a play with hard lessons.
It’s as much about feminism as it is about having a voice.
It is provocative, funny, stirring, and contemplative. Above all, it is dramatic and effective. It is inspiring for anyone who identifies with Emilia’s plight, and insightfully eye-opening and worthwhile for everyone else. As a Melbournian, I hope for nothing less than an international tour of Emilia so that many more across the world can listen and echo.
Feature image: Shakespeare’s Globe