I’m not sure what benefit there would be in another orthodox review of Emilia, the new play from Morgan Lloyd Malcolm commissioned specifically for The Globe. After all, we are at a late stage in its run, there are plenty of other reviews out there to read, and given there are no tickets left, why not do something different?
Emilia’s short run at The Globe was sold-out largely because of the viral positivity it generated amongst theatre Twitter and cracking word-of-mouth. And understandably so for this is a bold feminist work that reclaims the life and works of Emilia Bassano, the first British woman to be known as a professional poet, whose existence had almost entirely erased by the patriarchal structure of history that had reduced her to just ‘Shakespeare’s lover and muse,’ and his likely ‘Dark Lady’.
So, let’s ditch the traditional review and incite the wrath of purists by talking about how it made me, and the audience, feel…
Morgan Lloyd Malcom puts Emilia back as the driving force in her life. Here, Shakespeare is peripheral and, instead, we follow Emilia from her early years as the daughter to a widowed woman who may well have come to Tudor England from overseas, probably from Europe, through her life as mistress, wife, mother and widow, and the rise of her profile through her controversial published works that emphasised (what we would now understand as) a feminist emancipation of women.
There is a river of rage in this production that is hard to resist. Director Nicole Charles looks to keep the energy pumping as we whip through Emilia’s life, and the main woman’s words are a seamless series of shouting back speeches and confrontations with any man that crosses her path. It is furious, funny and fantastic.
There are a few moments where, perhaps, the energy dips and, here and there, the dialogue can get a bit on the nose but I’m not too fussed about this and I’ll tell you why: there’s a lot to be said for a stinging, full-blooded attack on the patriarchy. Emilia isn’t a hidden message; its target isn’t disguised. This play exposes misogynistic power structures in both private and public spheres – including the theatre – and demands that the righteous anger of women be finally heard and listened to.
It’s not subtle and it’s not trying to be, and I love how this punch to the solar plexus was platformed at The Globe – Shakespeare’s turf and the point of original sin for British theatre, where the British theatrical canon was born – and born as men-only. Only, as Emilia points out so bluntly, the foundations of that canon – which continues to marginalise women writers – was built off the appropriation of women’s words and their voices.
The cast is all female and the impact such a women-centric show had on the women on the audience was an honour and a privilege to witness. Take for example, a scene towards the finale where an older Emilia confronts the ghost of her dead ex – Shakespeare – on his use of words she had said to him, passing them off as his own writing. ‘This is my gaff,’ he responds as Emilia asks what he’s doing on her stage. Cue some laughs (and an odd round of applause form the man sitting next to me). ‘Not tonight,’ Emilia retorts – and the women in the audience hollered and cheered with every ounce of energy they had. (The man next to me fell, unsurprisingly, silent.)
It must be a wonderful experience for Morgan to see her work have such a strong reaction from audiences, and for those reactions to be backed up with such waves of positivity on social media. This show’s fury and righteous anger has clearly impacted so many, yet it was its softer moments that touched me most of all.
Maybe it’s my age, having recently passed the forty threshold, but I really feel the weight of history these days. I wonder about the millions of women who went before me whose voices were never heard, whose lives and achievements have been erased or ignored. I watch Who Do You Think You Are? and realise I have no idea about the experiences of the women through the generations in my own family. I don’t even know their names.
So, when our Emilia talks about how she must speak up and out for all those women who cannot or are not able to, I feel that. And these stages of maturity were wonderfully emphasised by having Emilia played by three different actors at different stages in her life. Only these stages were not defined so neatly by age nor defined by such male-centric events such as losing virginity or becoming a mother.
No, instead the play changed actors when certain stages of awakening had been reached. The first changeover comes when Emilia understands grief and loss, when her baby dies. The realisation that we are not immortal, that we get hurt and that there is something to lose; the second, when Emilia comes to understand her responsibility as a feminist to act for all women, not just herself. Emilia finally understands her privilege and consciously decides to use that to work for others. That was a beautiful moment indeed. And one that will stay with me for a lifetime.
We will rise when we all get to that final stage of awakening. May it come sooner rather than later.
Shakespeare’s Globe, London, to September 1, 2018.
Tickets from £5 (standing).
All production images by Helen Murray.