Three women dressed in blue next to the title 'Emilia'

March 31, 2019, by Peter Kirwan

Emilia (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ The Vaudeville Theatre

Emilia’s transfer to the West End, after a short but impactful run at Shakespeare’s Globe last summer, felt like a triumph even before the show opened. A new play on a seventeenth-century female poet, commissioned for only eleven performances at the Globe, doesn’t tick the obvious commercial boxes, but Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s text captured something raw and timely and entirely unexpected. Its revival is a significant enactment of the play’s own ethos – that women’s stories need to be heard, and that space needs to be proactively made for them.

Shifting to an indoor proscenium arch theatre, Nicole Charles’s production had to reimagine its strategies for developing a collective energy without the natural advantages of the Globe’s pit. Clare Perkins – whose performance as the oldest of three Emilias grounded the production specifically as memory play – stepped in front of the Vaudeville’s curtain with Simon Forman’s character sketch of her, and set up the tone with her eye rolls, scowls, and pregnant pauses as she distanced herself from the man’s view of her. From this moment, the production established itself as looking squarely out at its audience, incorporating them into the rewriting of History.

Where the original production made explicit use of the Globe’s architecture, Joanna Scotcher’s set for the revival placed greater emphasis on the classical allusions, with three tiers of platform surrounding a central circular space, evoking the Forum, or Plato’s school. The expanded ensemble appeared first in white, singing in chorus, and the extraordinary musicians moved among the ensemble throughout, singing and clapping and playing Luisa Gerstein’s score that combined beats and harmonies, strings and drums, in a millennia-spanning aural evocation of storytelling through song. Floodlights at the back of the stage cast the actors into silhouette. Where the Globe privileged the collective upswell of emotion and solidarity, the Vaudeville’s more controlled aesthetic turned Emilia into an icon, consolidating joy and anger from across the centuries.

Yet this didn’t come at the expense of that collectivity. The standout pre-interval sequence in which the middle Emilia (Adelle Leonce) attended a performance of Othello at the Globe, made full use of the auditorium, with Emilia and Charity Wakefield’s obnoxious Will in the boxes with audience members. Emilia subverted the gaze of the theatre, leaning out of her box to draw attention to her rather than to the stage, and when she invaded the performance and began declaiming – and claiming – the words that she had written, the theatre descended into pandemonium as actors ran through the audience instructing us not to look. After the interval, the auditorium was reconfigured as one massive laundry room, with clothes being passed along the rows for washing. The only really significant loss in the shift from the Globe was the specific resonance of Shakespeare returning to ‘his gaff’ in his final posthumous conversation with Emilia; the more generic justification of ‘basically any theatre is mine’ lacked the same resonance of institutional support for the man’s insufferable confidence.

Malcolm had adapted the script since the original production, the most important change of which gave greater weight to Emilia Lanier’s own poetry. Sophie Stone’s Margaret Clifford positioned Emilia’s poetry as something that women needed, giving it a political value that drove the project to get it into print. We heard rather more of the poetry itself than I recall hearing at the Globe, Emilia’s talent located in her own originality as much as in her ability to spar with Shakespeare. Wakefield’s Shakespeare came across as more poisonous to me this time in the character’s combination of charm and insidious privilege. The chutzpah with which Shakespeare acknowledged Emilia’s words existing in his plays, while also arguing that the real talent lay not in making up the words but in being the person to put them together, was breathtaking, and contributed to the feeling of desperate injustice that underwrote Emilia’s growing anger.

The two younger Emilias were both new to this revival. Saffron Coomber was initially wide-eyed and exuberant as the youngest Emilia, throwing a magnificent tantrum when sent to learn how to be a lady, and brilliantly wry in dealing with the other young ladies-in-training. Where Coomber excelled was in her negotiation of the contract with (creepier in this version) Carolyn Pickles’s Henry Carey; Coomber’s complex acceptance, noting what she was giving up while also recognising the freedoms it would give her, was subtly done and dared the audience to disapprove. And her climactic action, as the older Emilias gathered to support her as she found that her daughter had died, was devastating. That Coomber was physically so much smaller than the other Emilias made the oldest Emilia’s embrace of her and acknowledgement that ‘You’ve done so well’ profoundly moving, combining a mentor/mentee relationship with an act of deep self-care towards one’s own younger self.

Leonce took over as the middle Emilia, and got the bulk of the poetry. Leonce’s take on Emilia stressed the cynicism of her middle years, and as such the second act’s focus on her relationship with the washerwomen had a strong component of spiritual rebirth as well as new purpose. What could fall into awful cliches of the privileged woman teaching uneducated women turned into a mutual experience, with Emilia learning to value herself differently and to find political purpose in her writing and her enabling of others. The sudden and climactic burning of one of her students as a witch, I think, felt a little inorganically slotted in, as powerful as the image of Jackie Clune’s Eve screaming upstage as she disappeared into smoke was; even though the text trailed the accusations of witchcraft earlier, the sequence felt like too sudden a resolution of this strand of the story, and its resonances too quickly passed over in the shift to a conversation with the dead Shakespeare.

But where Emilia really triumphs is in its balancing and disruptive juxtaposition of hilarity and sorrow, and the ways in which extreme emotional states are embodied and shared by ensemble solidarity. The washerwomen’s anarchic humour (including in Eve’s angry poetry and the affectionate banter of the women) was an aggressive defence mechanism against their abuses by men, and the entry into their space of two men demanding sex (who Emilia and co then beat up) showed how closely aligned their self-deprecation and self-protection were. Nadia Albina’s beautifully measured performance as Emilia’s childhood companion Lady Katherine allowed the players to humorously unpack the ingrained prejudices against foreigners and anyone who gets above their station (with explicit reference to Brexit rhetoric), but also to eventually realise the scale of domestic abuse and control to which this ‘obedient’ woman was subject. Women survived in this world because of their bonds with one another, and the value of Emilia’s poetry – as a surrogate for the value of women recording and sharing their experience and hoping for better – became ever clearer as the play progressed.

But Emilia stands out because such views aren’t merely sentiments. The cast featured Deaf and disabled actors as well as being ethnically diverse; the all-female cast and creative team operated as a seamless and apparently mutually supportive ensemble; and the production has even announced plans to host the West End’s first matinee exclusively for nursing mothers. There’s a praxis of solidarity at work, that made the moments when solidarity was challenged all the more powerful. Clune, one of the few additions to the cast, played Lord Thomas Howard as effectively a pantomime villain, acknowledging the audience’s boos with a sneer and reminding us that he knew where we all lived. On the one hand, Clune’s performance was a comic highlight of the performance; on the other, Howard embodied in that appearance the divide and conquer strategies of the patriarchy, the attempt to foster conflict and bluster through appeals to ‘the way of things’. To feel the audience rise up against him along with the women onstage was to feel the theatre beginning – if quietly – to take action.

Emilia is too important and too good to ignore. Even knowing what was coming, Perkins’s final speech, digging down into the stage, reaching for her ancestors, declaring herself a 76-year-old black woman and demanding to be heard on those terms, had lost none of its force. But what I saw more clearly this time was the ensemble coming and surrounding her, standing with her in her rage, dancing frenetically with her, sharing and enhancing the anger mixed with joy. It’s a limited run, but on the basis of the energy here – and the need for such moments of expression and healing – it should be running for years yet.

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