Emilia Lanier née Bassano was one of the first English women to publish a book of poetry, the rumoured “Dark Lady” in Shakespeare’s sonnets and, as asserted by some, Shakespeare himself. This all-but-erased historical figure is the subject of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Olivier award-winning play, which was first commissioned for Shakespeare’s Globe before heading to London’s West End. Three actors play the 16th century poet at different ages, with known facts about Emilia’s life overlaid with conjecture on her rich interiority, motivations and how her words were used against her and for her.
The Australian premiere of Emilia has been blighted by misfortune: Heidi Arena, who plays William Shakespeare, sustained an injury on opening night while several actors were sidelined by Covid, meaning performances were cancelled across six nights. But Emilia is up and running again: Arena is back to reprise her role – albeit in crutches – while Kuda Mapeza stands in for Manali Datar as the youngest Emilia, reading from a script.
There’s some source material to play with when it comes to reimagining Emilia’s life and the play hews closely to what is known about her. Where it reinvents history is in its casting – a lineup of entirely women and non-binary actors perform all roles, with 10 of them inhabiting both male and female characters with aplomb. Historians have alluded that Emilia, Italian by way of her father, could’ve been Jewish. This point of difference, stark in an era when Jewish people were banned from entering England, is updated for a contemporary reality, with Emilia played by three Black women: Mapeza, Cessalee Stovall and Lisa Maza.
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“We are only as powerful as the stories we tell. We haven’t always been able to tell them,” opens Maza, in the first of two striking monologues that bookend the play. As the eldest Emilia in a Greek chorus of past, present and future selves that echo each other as Emilia’s life unfolds, Maza is a central, commanding presence on stage – even when she’s on the periphery.
Under Petra Kalive’s direction, the play charts Emilia’s passage into the gentry class: when she was given away at the age of seven to Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent, after the death of her father; and her schooling in the etiquette of being a woman of a higher social standing, communicated in a highly entertaining dance sequence featuring Sonya Suares, Jing-Xuan Chan and Sarah Fitzgerald as noblewomen. In a funny little nod to the unhistorical casting, Suares performs moves synonymous with Bharatanatyam, an ancient Indian classical dance.
Mapeza does an admirable job as the younger Emilia, her bright-eyed naiveté and fierce resolve belying the script she constantly has to refer to. Playing Emilia from childhood to becoming a writer, from being the mistress of one lord to becoming the reluctant wife of another, her performance sets the tone for Emilia’s exploration of thwarted female desire and ambition.
The age difference between Emilia and her lordly lover, Henry Carey, was 45 years; Geneviève Picot’s convincingly lecherous turn as the latter helps underline the troubling power dynamic. Emilia’s later paramour, none other than Shakespeare himself, is played farcically by Arena until his demeanour switches seamlessly into something altogether more sinister when his duplicity is uncovered.
The regal Stovall takes over from Mapeza when Emilia comes into her own as a teacher, writer and activist, and confronts Shakespeare about plagiarising her work. Blistering in her anger, Stovall brings a seething undercurrent of rage to the role. Right towards the end, Maza assumes her mantle as the oldest Emilia.
The transition between the three Emilias is gentle and affectionate, each of them supporting the other like a warm embrace, but the shifts between scenes can be tonally clumsy – a hackneyed exchange between middle-aged Emilia and Shakespeare’s ghost feels dissonant after a preceding tragic event.
A staircase spun around on its axis is the lone prop, used effectively as a birthing chamber, bedroom and writing room. The play delights in cheeky anachronisms: Converse sneakers peek out from under the actors’ formalwear. Punctuating the more sombre moments of the play with an air of levity are profane quips such as “you really fucked it”, while insults like “old turd” and “bastard” are liberally thrown around.
Drawing on Emilia’s own radical politics, the play’s message is clear. In Lloyd Malcom’s script, women’s confinement to the margins of history and their ostracisation from any pursuits which weren’t connected to motherhood find contemporary resonances in questions around representation, double standards and mansplaining. But the excessive signposting and proselytising throughout by the older Emilias imbues the play – which is likely already preaching to the converted – with a heavy didacticism. Even with knowing nods and winks thrown the audience’s way, there’s no space allowed for them within the narrative.
When Maza’s incredibly rousing closing monologue about anger, rebellion and reclamation brings certain audience members to their feet, it is well-deserved – but it rehashes well-worn territory.
Emilia is on at the Arts Centre Melbourne until 27 November; it then heads to Canberra Theatre Centre 1–3 December.