Saturday, 23 March 2019

Theatre Review: Emilia

I am not a prolific buyer of play texts. In fact I can’t remember the last time I bought one where it wasn’t also serving as a programme. As with many people who studied Shakespeare at school, I learned at an early age that plays are meant to be seen and not read. So when I tell you I bought the text of a play *in the interval* you should know that this is worthy of note. It is an indication of something major. The play, you should know, is A Big Deal.

The play in question is Emilia, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Globe-premiered, West End-transferred show about the life of Emilia Bassano; probably the ‘dark lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets and, even if not, an astonishing, inspiring and utter BAMF of a woman and published poet in a time where women might occasionally be poets but were certainly not published. Now look, if you’ve been anywhere near theatre Twitter in the course of this play’s life you know everything I’m about to say. You know that this piece is AN ACTUAL RIOT that demands to be seen by every woman, girl, man and boy in the fucking world. You know it should be on the National Curriculum and prescribed on the NHS. And if you’re not a #LDNTheatreBlogger well I’ve just let you in on the secret too. Really, I don’t want you to spend any more time reading this review. I just want you to go and buy tickets to Emilia now. Immediately. Stop reading and do it.

That said, I have a lot of feelings which I need to expel so I’m going to write the review anyway. The genius of Emilia, I think, is at its heart something so simple and so never seen on the London stage: it’s a play about a woman, commissioned by a woman, produced by women, written by a woman, directed by a 
 oman, with an all female cast and an all female creative team. At a stroke, it’s unique. It sounds different to anything else around at the moment; it looks different; it unashamedly speaks to a different audience. It’s a period piece that is also depressingly and joyously relevant. The whole production is vital and full of life in a way that nothing else I’ve seen in a very long time can even tilt at.

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s script is spectacularly good: funny, poignant, angry and inspiring. There’s a rhythm to it which is so unique, feeling at once completely modern and completely period appropriate. It made me laugh in both a ‘yes is this amusing’ and ‘yes this is not amusing but it’s something I recognise as being completely true and laughing is the only response other than punching the nearest man in the back of the head’ way. It made me cry happy tears, ‘holy fuck I’m so inspired’ tears, angry tears and viscerally sad tears (for those that have seen it, I lost it completely at *that* Eve scene). It made me so very angry. It also made me immediately follow Angela Merkel on Instagram and frantically Google Jacinda Ardern, which is a very me response. I’m not communicating this very well I suspect, but it’s the best piece of writing I’ve seen in a very long time. Possibly ever? Very close to ever, certainly.

Director Nicole Charles’ production is pitch perfect. And I’m not using ‘perfect’ here as a lazy way of saying ‘very good’ (as I will happily admit that I all too often do). I mean actually perfect. Like, there is no way this production - or this play - could be better. None. Absolutely none. Joanna Scotcher’s design is a beaut, making amazing use of the whole auditorium, and is also perfect. Louise Gerstein’s music is such a clever blend of the contemporary and the modern (and perfect). Zoe Spurr’s lighting is evocative and perfect. Emma Laxton’s sound is ominous and perfect. Have I made my point? I think so.

And guess what? The cast is perfect too. The production features three Emilias at three stages of her life (neat structural trick, ever neater way of giving lie to the idea that a show has to have just one star, even when it’s about one main character) and all three of the actresses who play her are absolutely excellent: Saffron Coomber does the journey from naivety to worldliness beautifully as the youngest version, Adelle Leonge quietly rages as she nurtures the fire in Emilia’s belly as the middle version and Clare Perkins brings the fucking roof down as the oldest, her final monologue being both the most gorgeously angry piece of writing and the most viscerally beautiful performance in a few minutes of theatre I’ve seen in god knows how long. The rest of the ensemble of fantastic women, all of whom play multiple parts, are equally excellent (the mighty Jackie Clune and Charity Wakefield deserving of particular mention) and really it’s the scenes where all or many of them are on the stage at the same time that are the most exciting in the whole piece. Especially when many of them are playing men, which they do with a mocking glee that is entirely unique to this piece and this ensemble. They’re clearly having a blast. They’re all so cool. I want to be in their gang.

Emilia is really quite something. It’s an amazing piece of theatre, yes, but it’s also something more than that. It feels like a movement, almost. Like just by being in the audience you’re saying ‘no, that’s fucking enough’ to all the stuff that women have to face to which that is the appropriate response. It’s one of only three plays I’ve ever seen that have genuinely changed the way I think about stuff (Cathy and The Jungle being the other two) and the only one ever that’s changed the way I see myself. It’s A Big Deal. See it immediately.

Emilia is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 15th June.

I sat in B14 in the stalls for this one, which was an absolute steal at £25 for one of the best seats I’ve ever sat in.

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