old age, black was not counted fair,
it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
is black beauty’s successive heir,
beauty slandered with a bastard shame.”
127th Sonnet is the first of his Dark Lady sequence, poems inspired
by a woman with black hair and dark skin. Who was this mysterious woman that
Shakespeare used as his muse? One answer could be Emilia Bassano, the first
woman in England to claim the title of professional poet.
Lloyd Malcolm’s play Emilia assumes this connection to be true in order
to explore how history revered the man and hid the woman and how we are still
dealing with the fallout of such treatment centuries later.
begins with an older Emilia reading the work of Dr Simon Forman, whose casebook
details his interactions with Emilia. This text forms the basis of much of what
is known of her life and her ambitions, but it is one man’s observations of a
woman who came to him for astrological readings – which were a central part of
medical practice at the time.
play is structured around three periods of the central character’s life and three
actors play Emilia throughout the show: Emilia 1 (Manali Datar) is the youngest
version, full of passion and ambition and not ready to fall into line; Emilia 2
(Cessalee Stovall), who first appears after the loss of her second child and
carries us through much of the second half of the play; and Emilia 3 (Lisa
Maza), who acts as a kind of narrator throughout and embodies the steely,
mature version of the poet.
Theatre’s production of Emilia is filled with the kind of irreverence the
company has brought to their takes on Shakespearean classics before – whether
it be fully passionate productions of Twelfth Night or A Midsummer
Night’s dream, a fully female-cast in Julius Caesar or Enter
Ophelia, a deconstruction of Hamlet’s Ophelia that played a few years ago
at La Mama.
fitting that this female-led company would embrace this play, telling the story
of a forgotten woman from history whose story is so often related to that of
William Shakespeare. I fell into that trap myself, but quoting him at the top
of my review.
play does not claim to be an accurate representation of history or a re-enactment
of Emilia’s life. “It is a memory, a dream, a feeling of her” the playwright
notes in the published text of the play.
follows Emilia through the typical tropes of the period: finding a man, keeping
a man, and the story of a woman struggling to find and maintain her own
identity, in a society that is not built for her. The fun and drama of the show
comes in the deliberate anachronisms, central to the conceit that modern
society was doomed by the deliberate obfuscation of women throughout history.
three women as Emilia, amongst an ensemble of nine other actors playing dozens
of roles, not only allows three actors to shine, it also brings further layers
to the character. With the passing of the torch at the different stages of her
life, the other Emilias ask if the third is ready, prepared to take centre
stage. One of the central tenets of the play is how women support other women; the
three Emilias support each other – the character coming to terms with how much
she has changed over a life time.
Emilia’s husband, Alphonso, who this play suggests is in a marriage of convenience
with Emilia – she needs a spouse as a means to gain status and he needs a wife
to protect his secret homosexuality.
We meet the
women who Emilia later teaches to read and write; a colourful collection of
women who work by the river and save Emilia from drowning.
We met a
variety of men and women of upper-class society who are scandalised at her
And we meet
William Shakespeare, who is beguiled by this “dark lady” and beyond using her
as inspiration for sonnets, probably used her name when penning Othello.
Will shakes-splains writing and poetry to Emilia and why she shouldn’t write or
perhaps cannot be a writer in the same way a man can. It all comes down to him
being allowed to live a life that Emilia cannot, but not for want of her
With a cast
of thirteen, Emilia is a true ensemble of women, supported by female and
non-binary production and creative teams. Director Petra Kalive keeps the
production moving along, the fast-paced dialogue and the joyous performances
keeping much of the show light and comedic. Which means when the dramatic
moments hit, they pack a real punch.
The entire ensemble
sings as the play runs through the highs and lows of Emilia’s life. And the
three women at the centre are allowed to truly shine. Manali Datar’s young
Emilia is full of joy, with a cutting wit that allows her to deal with a parade
of awful men, trying to find women for wives or pleasure. Cessalee Stovall’s
older Emilia is bold, a stronger woman bearing the scars of life but not yet
ready to fall into the box that society has designed to keep her in.
is the oldest version of Emilia, on stage for most of the show and guiding us
throughout, brings a full-force fiery performance to her section of Emilia’s
life – bringing the show to a powerful close and the opening night audience
quickly to their feet. The closing monologue is such a strong piece of writing
and rhetoric, designed to capture women’s anger and expose it to the audience.
A standing ovation is almost required, but here it was so very well earned.
One note on
the opening night: there was unfortunately a full show stop about half-way
through act one when one of the actors had to leave the show in pain. After the
show recommenced, standby Izabella Yena stepped on stage to play William
Shakespeare without much preparation. In a show that embraces the theatrical at
every turn, having a Shakespeare that needed to consult the script in his hand
felt like a perfect piece of happenstance in trying circumstances. And Yena did
an incredible job.
Theatre’s production is fun and playful and a truly searing look at women’s
pain and the anger they have inside. I first saw this show on the West End in a
two-show day when I first saw the musical Six and they were the perfect
complement to each other – centring women in history that have so long only
been remembered in relation to the men in their lives. Melbourne is so lucky to
have seen Six earlier this year and to have Emilia on stage at
the Arts Centre now.
This is an
incredible play in a stellar production with an incomparable ensemble cast. A
blistering feminist attack on the history we’ve been told, opening up a new way
to look at those women who have been overlooked for so long. Don’t miss it.
- Keith Gow, Theatre First
Photos: Dylan Hornsby, Good Gravy Media