Features Published 25 March 2019

An Emilia Dialogue

As Emilia hits the West End, Hannah Greenstreet and Amy Borsuk discuss its metatheatricality, its Jewish parallels, its role as feminist historical fiction, and more.
Hannah Greenstreet

‘Emilia’ at Vaudeville Theatre. Photo: Helen Murray

Hannah Greenstreet: I didn’t manage to see Emilia at the Globe last August. Judging by my Twitter feed – filled with strong arm and fire emojis, avowals of feminist rage and quotes from *that* final monologue – I’d really missed out. So when I heard Nicole Charles’ production of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play was getting a West End transfer, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to see what all the hype was about. I wanted to do a dialogue review with you Amy as I thought our perspectives would complement each other. In my pitch to (Exeunt editor) Alice Saville, I promised you’d bring the early modern dramaturgical expertise and I’d bring the obsession with contemporary feminist theatre. As we’re both PhD students, we are unashamedly leaning in to the ‘clever woman’ appellation. Amy, you told me that you saw Emilia in its first iteration. What were you expecting from the transfer and what has changed?

Amy Borsuk: I took a cue from the marketing for this West End transfer when it came to building my expectations for this compared to its Globe run: images of the three Emilias holding hands, smiling, with bold feminist statements about power, or tantalising prompts like, “is she Shakespeare’s dark lady?” Ultimately, I knew they were going to lean into what would draw in West End audiences, beyond the usual Globe subscribers: pop feminism and pop Shakespeare. I feel I was pretty on the nose about that.

What I wasn’t sure about was how much, literally, of the play they would keep, and it hadn’t even occurred to me that the physical space change would make a major difference. Of course, now that’s the component of this transfer that I’m most fascinated with – how bringing it from the Globe early modern space and framework into the classic Victorian proscenium of the Vaudeville theatre changed how the show worked, and how I felt I was meant to understand the play.

I realise now that at the Globe, in that open-air space, with the focus on audience-actor relationships, shared light and non-amplified sound, the focus I had was on how this contemporary feminist act of historiography could be conveyed through early modern theatrics. I thought it struggled a bit that way, that these values the Globe upholds in its performances wasn’t doing the narrative any favours because so many components of the show relied on contemporary theatrics: many changes in time, location, character, but at the Globe there wasn’t any lighting or set change to mark these changes or guide the audience to the focus point on the stage.

The cast of Emilia at Vaudeville Theatre. Design: Joanna Scotcher. Photo: Helen Murray

HG: Joanna Scotcher’s design brings the Globe to the West End, or at least had a segment of its trademark wooden semi-circular scaffolding against the back wall. Amy, when we were chatting after the show, you made the point about all the lights and tech being exposed – which instantly creates a sense of metatheatricality. I really like your point about how the production became a dialogue between the Globe space and its theatrical (and political?) connotations, and the Vaudeville theatre space. At one point, the character Shakespeare tells Emilia this theatre is ‘my gaffe’ (a line that worked better at the Globe). But he has a point: given Shakespeare’s dominance over the western theatrical canon, he exerts a powerful influence, which is great to see physicalised onstage and shown to be fallible and a bit bumbling by Charity Wakefield.

Charity Wakefield in Emilia. Photo: Helen Murray

AB: Yes! Honestly the changed set was the best part of the transfer. The original set at the Globe puzzled me because it had a permanent bookcase installation, including a case in the shape of the Globe logo, and a promenade space that extended into the yard in a semi-circle. Place and time is difficult to establish on the Globe stage, but I don’t think adding more set pieces was the solution. Anyway, I loved the wood and metal scaffolding in the rounded Globe shape on the classic proscenium Vaudeville Theatre stage, and the ever present amber-coloured flood lights (like footlights!) for that metatheatricality as you say, and for the metaphor of contemporary materials serving as the real structural support for the early modern.

The narrative felt really sprawling and meandering at the Globe and here at the Vaudeville, thanks to edits and to this enclosed, amplified and electric space, the narrative could flow more cohesively and themes and motifs could be visually marked and underlined. Making Shakespeare that awkward comedic character was good fun, and Wakefield does the part well. I am struck though by the irony of making him such a focal point of the play. On one hand, I appreciated that he had more stage time here because it clarified the pacing and structure, but ironically it undoes the feminism of the play: are we supposed to know and care about Emilia because of her connection to Shakespeare or for her in her own historic right? I feel that the Globe was designed to be a contemporary space for early modern performance, but Emilia is a contemporary play on early modern history.

HG: Ooh interesting distinction! I wonder whether we can think about Emilia as historical fiction a bit more – a genre which raises all sorts of questions about authenticity and accuracy, representation, and how present concerns mediate retellings of the past. At times, it felt like the subtlety of the writing was sacrificed to display the relevance of Emilia’s story to contemporary concerns – for example characters talking about the xenophobia and racism of craftsmen fearing people coming over to take their jobs.

However, maybe some of the moments of stating the obvious is also due to the embrace of a more popular theatrical style. At times it felt like I was watching a pantomime – and this is not to criticise at all – with clear goodies and baddies, direct address to the audience, and an appropriately rowdy audience response. There’s a brilliant moment when Lord Thomas Howard (Jackie Clune) comes to berate Emilia for publishing her poetry, accusing her of being an improper woman, and the audience boo him offstage like a panto villain.

AB: Yes, absolutely! I love the panto comparison, particularly because it is a genre stemming from sixteenth and seventeenth-century commedia dell’arte, concurrent with Shakespeare (albeit Italian), and a really popular Victorian past-time, but one that has a lot of similarities with the openness of early modern performance. But besides the historical overlaps, the clear goodies and baddies in Emilia really seemed to strike a chord with the audience, both here and when I saw it at the Globe. I have to admit though, I think that ended up detracting from the play’s impact, even if it does energise the audience to feel the feminist sentiment.

The cast of Emilia. Photo: Helen Murray

Yesterday was also the Jewish festival holiday, Purim, in which we perform the story of Esther with a very panto style. The congregation-audience already knows the characters and each one has a particular cheer or boo that the audience is supposed to do; it’s a chance to be noisy, raucous – to disturb the customs of an otherwise holy space. I can’t help but draw parallels with Emilia: It was satisfying for me to get in my Purim shpiel with Emilia, which I’m counting because of her potential Jewish heritage and because of the style and energy engagement we experienced as an audience.

HG: That’s really interesting. Could you say a bit more about what being Jewish meant in the early modern period – the production didn’t have (make?) space to explore its complexities.

AB: Yes I’d love to! Essentially, the reality of Jewish life in Shakespeare’s Europe lends itself to very riveting, complex drama. Jews across early modern Europe were being forced to convert to Christianity or be killed in various regimes, notably the Spanish Inquisition. Many Italian Jews were originally from Spain and Northern Africa – Sephardic Jews – and converted but practiced Judaism in secret as “conversos.” Given that we know Emilia was probably of Northern African descent and raised by a Venetian family – a city that in the mid 1500s was a port city that became a refuge for diasporic converted Jews who still wanted to practice Judaism – it makes it a reasonable possibility that her family was secretly Jewish, and that they were part of the migratory population of Jews trying to find a better life.

My point in digging into this history is that understanding Emilia as potentially part of a black and Jewish diaspora, as we understand it today, makes her an important character for exploring the reality of how oppression worked in early modern Europe. Jews were made to be second class citizens wherever they went. James Shapiro explores this really well in Shakespeare and the Jews: the violence and hostility he describes that Jews faced is gruesome but very real and well documented.

Ultimately, in early modern Europe, Jewishness and blackness were conjoined differently than they are today. Emilia is called “moor” at the beginning of the play. The term could refer to many things: her skin colour, African origins, Muslim or Jewish faith, or a combination of these things.

HG: That’s fascinating – but almost completely unexplored in the play. Do you think that’s a missed opportunity?

AB: Yeah I think it’s a great opportunity for even more diverse representation. It digs more deeply into intersectional feminist issues than the plot developed in Emilia.

Nadia Albina and Sarah Seggari in Emilia at Vaudeville Theatre

HG: Let’s talk about Emilia’s feminism. It is, in many ways, intersectional, both in terms of content and in production process (big respect to Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and the producers for holding a baby-friendly matinee, for example). It centres a black female character, and splits her into three substantial parts.

But…I wonder whether Emilia’s message of anger at inequality is too palatable? Too safe? I don’t know. Because it obviously moved many people in the audience. And Clare Perkins’ delivery of that final monologue is worthy of the standing ovation it receives. She seemed like a feminist preacher, channelling palpable rage through her body to us in the audience.

In a dialogue piece with Maddy Costa about Dance Nation and feminist theatre more generally, Rosemary Waugh describes feeling a ‘pang of guilt that I’m being a ‘bad feminist’ if I don’t like something I am ‘supposed to’’. Like her, I got that guilt with Emilia. Is there something wrong with me for not being moved as much as some other people clearly were? For not having the right affective response? Because I really wanted to be moved, to join in with that…but I couldn’t quite feel it.

AB: There’s a lot of gesturing towards feminist inclusion, definitely! Choosing her history as a black Jewish woman is excellent, and the all women cast is an excellent idea because these women get to play such a wide range of characters, and because it flips the all-men early modern stage. There’s a bit of discussion of privilege, and her allying with the workers is a gesture towards contemporary class solidarity. But I agree, it was just gesturing. It felt palatable, but not necessarily substantial under analytical scrutiny. It was – to be Greek for a sec – cathartic.

Clare Perkins is phenomenal, true, and she gets to dig deep into rage and passion here. And yet, I also didn’t feel moved both at the Globe and here! I also wanted to join in but wasn’t… feeling it. I do wonder if there is something we are missing? Perhaps it is that willingness to share that catharsis?

HG: Quite possibly! I wonder also whether it’s something to do with the play’s use of anachronism/ take on history. In the final monologue, Emilia movingly declares, ‘I hold in me a muscle memory of every woman who came before me and I will send more for those that will come after’; we are Emilia’s inheritors. The play as a whole seems to be working with that progress narrative of history. The missing link seems to be the suffragettes, who are evoked visually on the posters I’ve been seeing all over the tube. The play could be in subtle dialogue with all the programming to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s partial suffrage in the UK, in its focus on how women are remembered and forgotten by the stories told of them. But of course, the path to equal rights hasn’t been teleological or linear, or a single movement – that is a narrative. Plenty of women, such as women of colour, working class women, disabled women, lesbian/bi and trans women, have felt themselves excluded by the mainstream women’s movement and their activism risks getting erased by a linear narrative. Not really sure where I’m going with this…

AB: The imagined linear narrative of progress is something I’ve been really fixated on as a common assumption in progressive Shakespeare theatre productions lately, and that speech definitely assumes that teleological path, as you say.

As for the take on history, the major problem here is the framing of this play as entirely truthful when it is more historical fiction (possibly out of necessity since there’s so little known about her, and they wanted a play). It’s enticing to have a character/person like her who can be a symbol of connecting the dots, of linear progress, but she is, sadly, mostly a fiction representing these desires in our historical feminist theatre.

HG: Yeah absolutely. And even now, seeing that many women on stage at the West End to take a curtain call so joyfully was like a fist to the chest. (I couldn’t help comparing that moment to the RSC’s Imperium, another historical drama, in which I amused myself by counting how many male performers there were onstage vs female ones – about 20:2). I also worry that I haven’t said that I enjoyed the show. It was very well directed by Nicole Charles. Anna Morrissey’s choreography and Luisa Gerstein’s original music, played by onstage musicians, brought fluency to the scene transitions in what could otherwise be a disparate script.

Emilia. Photo: Helen Murray

AB: Yeah, it was enjoyable! In terms of theatrical craft beyond the script, the actors were amazing, I loved the music (and the muses, who at the Globe seemed extraneous and out of place since they weren’t the musicians or narrators), and the blend of early modern dance and contemporary dance and gestures (dabbing, flossing, the finger snap of excitement that young Emilia does) made it easy to enjoy and get lost in. I adored how they used the theatre, with the male characters climbing into the box seats, interjecting loudly and ad-libbing.

HG: I loved that! I read the script before I knew it was transferring and couldn’t quite work out why people were raving about it. Part of the narrative of Emilia is about the power of the printed book to survive and memorialise the writer. But I think the power of Emilia the play is in its theatrical performance. In that collaboration by a team of women to realise something greater than the sum of its parts, in an auditorium of mainly women, standing on their feet, roaring. That’s pretty special.

AB: It’s such a simple thing, but so effective – of course putting a team together in this model would produce a play that is full of rousing feminist energy! Something fundamentally different to most West End theatre. I guess I wanted to learn something new politically, but I’ll take discovering Emilia Bassanio.

Emilia is on at the Vaudeville Theatre till 15th June. More info here.

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Hannah Greenstreet

Hannah is a writer, academic and theatre critic. She is London Reviews co-Editor for Exeunt, with a focus on fringe and Off-West End theatre. She is researching an AHRC-funded PhD on contemporary feminist theatre and realism at the University of Oxford. She is also a playwright and has worked with Soho Writers' Lab, the North Wall Arts Centre, and Menagerie Theatre Company.