There are three Emilias in Malcolm Lloyd Malcolm’s new play about Emilia Bassano, the woman thought to have inspired Shakespeare’s sonnets. One, played by Leah Harvey, is a young woman indoctrinated into courtly ways following the death of her father who becomes the mistress of Lord Henry Carey (Carolyn Pickles), followed by the wife of Alphonso Lanier (Amanda Wilkin). Two, played by Vinette Robinson, is the older woman, mother to two children, who is trampled down by successive attempts by others (mainly men) to silence her and steal her words. Three, played by Clare Perkins, is the oldest Emilia, who mainly helps narrate the passages showing her earlier life, until giving a phenomenal closing speech that ends with the entreaty, ‘If they try to burn you, may your fire be stronger than theirs so you can burn the whole fucking house down.’
Throughout her successive roles as mother, wife, lover, Emilia is a poet and writer, one who aches for a way not just to publish and disseminate her work but simply for it to be taken seriously by the people around her. Lloyd Malcolm’s play excels in showing how her need to write, and to know her own mind, is swatted down like an irritating fly by other people from her childhood onwards. It also shows the everyday racism and prejudice experienced by a woman known throughout history as ‘the dark lady’, demonstrating how Emilia’s appearance (she is believed to have been of Italian-Jewish and North African descent) makes her the recipient of endless enquiries regarding where she ‘really is from’, unwanted intended-flattery about her ‘exotic’ appearance and straightforward racism from drunken passers-by.
Emilia is also a play about female friendship, ingenuity and strength in numbers. The central character is variously supported by the friends she makes through court circles, including other ‘unconventional’ and creative women, the washer women she teaches to read and write, the other versions of herself at different ages, and a phalanx of muses dressed in white who either hang out above the stage like a collection of modern goddesses or descend the stage to mingle with the other performers. It’s also quite funny in parts.
So why didn’t I like Emilia? Crudely put, I completely agree with this play politically and I’m glad the Globe decided to programme it, not least because the idea of staging new writing that links to Shakespeare is a brilliant way of mixing-up the repeat performances of the collected works of William. But as a piece of theatre it left me cold. For the most part it resembles a long-form feminist polemic rather than a narrative that draws the audience inside it or compels them to think: I wonder what will happen next? The text is adroit at pinpointing the injustices women (especially women of colour) faced in Elizabethan times and now, but it often seems more concerned with making a point about, for example, the rise in racist anti-immigration attitudes post-Brexit vote than really telling the story of Emilia Bassano.
This arms-length distancing is summed up by Joanna Scotcher’s set design. In many ways this is one of the strongest parts of the production. A skeletal library fills the main playing space, whilst the stage has been expanded into the Yard using titling wooden slats forming a boardwalk-like horseshoe with a space in the middle for the audience. On the balcony is a large wooden ‘O’ filled with red books. It resembles almost exactly the red ‘O’ used throughout The Globe’s publicity materials since the start of this season. It functions, therefore, not as set design creating an aesthetic for the play, but as a constant visual reminder that this is being staged as a part of a programme of work curated by a venue. And that’s a problem simply because it means, looking at it, that the viewer’s mind is as much on the modern identity of Shakespeare’s Globe as it is, again, on the character of Emilia Bassano.
Emilia has, of course, been programmed as a feminist play, one that counteracts or challenges the lineage of traditional plays written by men including, most of all, those authored by Shakespeare and normally performed in The Globe. Which in turn raises the question of what a ‘feminist play’ is. Over the past few years, there’s been a rising tide of vocal objection to the staging of misogynist productions, including the use of rape scenes to add ‘edginess’, the lack of women characters, the lack of women playwrights commissioned and much more. All of which I’m in complete agreement with. But is the answer to then programme works by women talking only about being women (which is what Emilia predominantly does)?
A lot of people will find watching this play empowering and energising, whilst I found it oddly deflating as I often do when watching ‘feminist theatre’. Because it makes it feel like being a woman is still a niche concept or that the perfectly reasonable request to not walk into a theatre and see blatantly misogynist art is only answerable by swinging the pendulum to the absolute other end of the spectrum and staging a political discussion about Being A Woman. It also makes it still seem like male writers get programmed to do the ‘topic’ plays whilst women get to write about women. There’s something far more interesting about a writer, who happens to be a woman, being commissioned to write a play on the oil industry or the bankruptcy of an energy company (just to chose two examples) than seeing writers, who happen to be women, being commissioned to write the feminist take on the life of William Shakespeare.
And there’s another side to this discussion and that is: it doesn’t matter what I think (she says, 900 words in). The whole point is that ‘feminist theatre’ shouldn’t be a monolithic entity and that includes the way plays written and performed by women will chime heavily with some female audience members, and not with others. This isn’t the type of play I personally like, for many reasons, and that doesn’t devalue it or question its status as feminist theatre. The image of ever-burning rage doesn’t resonate with me (an ever-present well of watery sadness does more), but the fact it does for so many women is important and more than validates having this on stage.
It comes down, once again to this: there’s no such thing as theatre for women. Not just because women like their feminism in different forms, but because women like their art in different forms. I want a play that swallows me whole, one that has its ‘politics’ sewn into its fabric so subtly you feel them on an almost instinctual level, not in the same was as reading a tweet. I want, most of all, to be told a story. But I also want other people to tell and hear their stories too, and if Emilia is that for some women, that’s OK. We don’t need to agree.
Emilia is on until 1 September 2018 at Shakespeare’s Globe. Click here for more details.