Of all the anonymous or misattributed plays best known collectively as ‘The Shakespeare Apocrypha’, Fair Em is perhaps the most obscure, to scholars as well as theatregoers. Phil Willmott continues his run of fringe Shakespeare at the Union Theatre, following Double Falsehood and King John, with a game, lively production that combines nostalgia with a distinctly contemporary sensibility.
One strand of the dual plot follows the lovesick William the Conqueror, who is enticed to Denmark by a beautiful portrait only to find that the King’s daughter, Blanch, is not what he expected, and instead transfers his affections to Mariana, a lady at the Danish court beloved of his companion, Lubeck. While the source play allows for William’s change of heart to be fickleness rather than a statement against Blanch, here Willmott requires Madeline Gould’s Blanch to present herself as repulsive to him through her (deliberately) tuneless singing and bolshy demeanour. The play as a result shifts to draw parallels The Taming of the Shrew, Blanch imagined as a Kate-like figure whose aggression and forthrightness are tempered by the demure Mariana, who engineers the body swap that sees William steal Blanch away thinking it to be her. Jack Taylor’s William is tempestuous, a medieval warrior lover who is ultimately better pleased with a maid who can match his fire.
In the other plot, William’s deputies in England pursue a Miller’s daughter, the titular Em. We see here some interesting inversions of standard early modern comic structures. Em is in love with Manville, played from the start as an arrogant dolt by David Ellis, who expects the crowd to join in his petulant scorn of his rivals and understand his jealousy. Mountney and Valingford, the two other rivals, engage with Manville in a gloriously funny wooing sequence during which each attempts to replace the others’ gift with his own while singing to the unseen Em. All three are presented as equally inept. Caroline Haines’s Em instigates a plot to dissuade the unwelcome suitors through feigning deafness and blindness. During these sequences, the suitors bewail their ill fortune with woeful appeals to the audience, but crucially the hidden Manville also believes Em’s disability and disclaims his own love. It is Valingford who is canny enough to suspect a trick.
Across these two merry, farcical plots, Willmott and his team overlay an atmosphere of medieval pastoral. Pantomimic backdrops display a sailboat moving from ‘England’ to ‘Denmark’, and the excellent onstage band, ‘Green Willow’ accompanies the action with songs, dances (including a wonderful first half closer which places William at the centre of a rowdy masque) and Anna Sorensen Sargent’s lavish period costumes. The music is the production’s strength while also its weakness – the combination of folk music that creates a wistful nostalgia and jazzy numbers that build the energy is wonderful, but the music is often overlaid too intrusively, most frustratingly in the sequences of Em’s feigned blindness and deafness, where it becomes difficult to hear and understand what she is saying.
The use of music as an emotive cue throughout is perhaps more understandable, and coupled with Willmott’s interpolated narrations (spoken by the musicians) speaks to an interest in ensuring the audience can follow an unfamiliar play. In communicating a lost gem to a modern audience, the production succeeds in telling a clear and pointed story and communicates farce with heart and zest. While the production sensibly does not try to impose a modern psychology on what are essentially stock figures, the interactions do show a pleasing complexity, particularly as William and Lubeck rein in their obvious anger during their conflict over Mariana, Lubeck’s deference to his king preventing him expressing fully his frustration. The play’s conclusion, however, is distinctly modern.
Blanch, silently taken by William in the original play’s closing scene, here is given a decisive set piece speech that advocates Em’s right to choose her own husband, on the basis of which William finally sees Blanch’s quality. While an anachronistic oversimplification of the play’s gender politics, in theatrical terms Willmott engineers a coup, tying together two disparate plots and creating clear arcs for his characters. It’s a bold statement to close a confident production of an entertaining lost gem.