Emilia at the Vaudeville Theatre
It’s all about that ending. Clare Perkins’s eldest Emilia, delivering a chest-thumping, arm-raising, hollering feminist sermon, urging those in attendance to “take the fire as your own”, gradually joined by the rest of the all-woman cast as the audience erupts and the stage bursts into dance. A rousing rallying cry, a certain kind of validation and representation that’s rare to the point of near non-existence in the West End. As final images go, it’s indelible – so much so that it almost makes what comes before superfluous.
Transferring from the Globe following a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it run last summer, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s dramedy tracks the life of the titular Emilia Bassano: pioneering female poet and so-called “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Played by Saffron Coomer, Adele Leonce and the aforementioned Perkins at different ages, the protagonist’s class, race and gender all obstruct her attempts to write, teach and live in a way equal to the men of the time. Emilia might be in traditional period dress, but it is hardly a huge leap from then to now.
There’s a touch of Blackadder or Horrible Histories to the production. Buffoonish men – including Charity Wakefield’s arrogant, bumbling Bard – pontificate and lecture at length; broad-accented washerwomen bark at passersby; hoity-toity ladies of the court bicker like Mean Girls. It’s history by way of pantomime, the boo-yay vibes helping maintain an unflagging sense of energy.
However, the Emilias sort of feel like they are from a different play entirely. Often the three leads, especially Coomer and Leonce, are left as the straight women to the caricatures that surround them, making some of the shifts into tragedy or sincerity jar. When the Emilias are interacting with each other, or addressing the audience directly, the show acquires a different feel; you can then clearly see how youthful defiance is transformed by grief, racism and misogyny into to a hardened anger and rage that sets the stage alight at its conclusion. Each actress does great work, but it is Perkins’s wise, furious version that lingers most.
There are multiple instances where director Nicole Charles has the production spill over into the audience, replicating the freedom presented by the Globe’s pit in the restraints of a West End theatre. It is all part of a feeling of community and empowerment, on stage and off, that Emilia is insistent on delivering. And though its journey to that blazing finale may be clunky, it’s arguably enough that it will mean a hell of a lot to a hell of a lot of people.
Photo: Helen Murray
Emilia is at the Vaudeville Theatre from 8th March until 15th June 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.