August 15, 2018, by Peter Kirwan
Emilia @ Shakespeare’s Globe
All summer, the Globe has been playing fast and loose with the meaningfulness of the name ‘Emilia’ recurring in three of this season’s plays (Othello, The Winter’s Tale, The Two Noble Kinsmen). Along with implying that audiences can ‘follow’ the character through the plays (thankfully, the individual productions made no attempt to force the connection), the advertising served as anticipation for one of this year’s new plays, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s superlative Emilia.
Let’s get the history out of the way. The grounding for Malcolm’s story is a series of conjectures built on suppositions with a healthy dollop of wishful thinking thrown in. It’s imaginative biography (see also: Anonymous) that experiments with a bunch of what-ifs in order to push its own agenda. Here, Emilia Bassano (or Emilia Lanier, or Emilia Bassano Lanier depending on which bit of the Globe’s materials you encounter; I’ll call her Emilia) IS the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets, as well as the inspiration for the Emilia characters (and Rosaline of Love’s Labour’s Lost) and the feeder to Shakespeare of many of his most famous lines and scenarios. Following the Dark Lady hint, she is also unambiguously here a woman of colour.
None of this is a complaint. Imaginative historical biography is one of the best mediums for exploration of the most pressing issues of today, and all biography does it even if it doesn’t admit it. Malcolm’s script is upfront about its probabilities and possibilities; this is not a documentary but a manifesto. Emilia stands for all women from across history, and becomes a mouthpiece against oppression and silencing of women, against xenophobia, against the co-option of women’s creative energies in the service of the glorification of men. Shakespeare doesn’t come across well.
The plot (and this is a long play) traces Emilia’s adolescence and training as she is prepared for court and becomes the mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Chamberlain, who gives her financial independence and supports her in doing what she most wants to do – write. When she falls pregnant, he forces her into a marriage of convenience with the wasteful, dim, kindly and gay Alphonso Lanier. After the death of her patron she takes a job as governess to the child of Lady Margaret Clifford, who similarly supports her literary ambitions. The second half of the play sees her meet and begin educating a group of washerwomen, who eventually become a coterie of pamphlet publishers, leading to tragedy as the women are persecuted for their ambition but also cementing Emilia’s legacy.
In director Nicole Charles’s hands, the three hours flew by. Building on the circle motif that pervaded the Globe’s summer season, designer Jo Scotcher built a raked set of curving ramps down into the pit to create a smaller circular pit inside the main one, and a large vertical circle filled with books stood in the gallery, atop a large staircase and library (with sliding ladders) packed with even more volumes. The band betrayed the influence of Hamilton in Bill Barclay’s phenomenal score, mixing early modern instruments with prominent beats provided by drum kit. And against this background, Charles directed an all-female cast in what felt like the performances of their lives.
Emilia herself was embodied by three actors: Leah Harvey as the youngest, Vinette Robinson in the middle, and Clare Perkins as the oldest Emilia who also led the trio’s choric commentary from her end-of-life vantage point. The transitions between the three came at points of tragedy – first the death of Emilia’s daughter (unbearable in Harvey’s performance; her grief demanding she be relieved), then of her husband. The connection between the three was warm, with the actors even asking each other if they were ready before handing over. Emilia’s place both in and out of time made her a thoroughly modern woman in all iterations – Harvey’s finger snaps and sassy backchat allowed her to win arguments with her more staid peers, while Perkins watched the whole with the serious gaze of history, judging the prejudices her younger counterparts had encountered.
Emilia was driven by anger and by love. From the start, she refused to be cowed, wrestling with her mother to avoid being given away to Jenni Maitland’s hilariously court-savvy Countess of Kent for training. She wanted to write, and snatches of her poetry filtered through the script (the fluid interweaving of early modern, quasi-early modern and unabashedly modern language was a triumph of Morgan’s script). Far more intelligent than everyone around her, Emilia suffered fools and bested opponents in arguments, all with grace but increasingly short patience.
The characters surrounding the youngest Emilia were primarily comic. The early coming-out scenes at court were populated by brilliantly pastiched Renaissance dudes with floppy moustaches, thrusting groins and grabbing hands, into which the young women were thrust. Sarah Seggari, as her closest ally Lady Cordelia, was a delight here as she supported Emilia but also threw herself lustily after one of her suitors. A more serious throughline was established with Nadia Albina’s Lady Katherine, who brilliantly restaged Brexit arguments with the young Emilia, asking where she was really from and accusing ‘her kind’ of coming over and taking English jobs. Emilia’s eloquent defence of the productivity of immigrants drew a cheer from the audience. Albina’s performance, one of the production’s subtler, established her ingrained prejudices while allowing for warmth towards Emilia, and as Sophie Russell’s Lord Howard, her husband, evolved from brash, Lord Flashheart-style comic relief to brutal persecutor of women who write, Albina (now with black eyes and cuts) both softened in severity and hardened in resolve, joining Emilia’s coterie.
Key to understanding Emilia was her absolute sense of self even as men felt they were using her. While Carolyn Pickles’s Henry Carey was a sometimes sinister old lech, the first Emilia took clear charge of their encounters, telling him what she wanted. Amanda Wilkin was wonderfully feckless as Alphonso, showing concern when money ran low but happy to defer to Emilia and ending all their conversations with ‘clever girl’ before flouncing off to drink with his friends. Yet Wilkin beautifully modulated the performance throughout. Early on I was concerned that the gay characters were too broadly drawn, with Anna Andresen’s Mary Sidney painted as predatory and Alphonso useless, but Wilkin developed warmth and respect, and the middle Emilia recognised in her husband a kindred spirit who, like her, was unable to live in public the life that he wanted; their final conversation before his death was moving.
And then there was Shakespeare. Charity Wakefield’s Will was a charmer but out for himself; there for Emilia while they were lovers and an appreciator of her talent, but a plagiarist who refused to apologise for the times they lived in when stealing her lines for his plays. Many of their scenes incorporated Shakespearean dialogue, such as a Taming of the Shrew-referencing quarrel, and Wakefield had sparky chemistry with both Harvey and Robinson. Further, as a Globe commission, the play incorporated a substantial site-specific element as Emilia went to the Globe. Descending into the inner pit, she watched as two onstage actors performed the willow scene from Othello, and commented loudly from the audience as she recognised a perversion of herself in Shakespeare’s Emilia, before rushing the stage and disrupting the play. Beyond the comedy, the sequence developed the ‘Thank you for typing’ ethos of the effacement of women’s productivity throughout history, calling for recognition and different voices.
The second Emilia met her match in the second half when she met the lively group of washerwomen who became her adult education group. Here, Emilia became the privileged woman, and the ensemble poked fun at her voice, sheltered upbringing and expectations. But while this section felt long in comparison to the others, it set up what seemed to be this play’s most important objective – the establishment of communities of women for mutual benefit. As the women developed their own poetry they also became invested in their own humanity, beating away the johns who came to pay for sex and supporting one another in learning to express themselves. The busy community passed out pamphlets among the audience, commissioned a printer and developed their writing – until one of their number was tried and burned for witchcraft, atop a pyre of the books that had dressed the stage. The sudden catastrophe, a blow to the community, brought the play to a powerful and crushing halt.
Finally, Shakespeare and the oldest Emilia took the stage, with Shakespeare reminding Emilia that ‘this’ – the Globe – was ‘his gaff’. But Emilia was right as she gestured towards the audience and said ‘Not right now it isn’t’. It’s always perilous to read an audience, but the reaction to what came next was the perfect demonstration of what the Globe is capable of at its best. Shakespeare left, and Perkins’s Emilia gave a long, impassioned call to arms on behalf of her voice and the voice of all women. The Globe, in this tour de force, literally gave a platform to a black woman speaking truth back to centuries of abuse and overwriting, insisting on the importance of her anger. ‘If they try to burn you, may your fire be stronger than theirs SO YOU CAN BURN THE WHOLE FUCKING HOUSE DOWN’ very nearly did, the audience exploding with a response so forceful that I don’t think she even got to speak the play’s closing lines. Instead, looking like she was still carrying the weight of that history, Perkins rejoined the ensemble and danced an angry, yet joyful, conclusion to what is surely the highlight of this season.