For those lucky few who managed to get tickets to see Emilia during its three-week run at The Globe theatre – well done us. The shortened run is something of a crime because, as I will explain in this review, this play deserves to be seen by everyone. Everyone, but particularly any women (such as myself) who have ever felt voiceless, an afterthought, something to decorate the scenery but remain silent while basking in the light of their male counterparts.
Emilia Bassano is the focus of this most extraordinary play, a woman best known for being a mistress of none other than William Shakespeare, the “dark lady” of his sonnets (and the inspiration behind the frequently found Emilia character in his plays, most notably, Othello) – but was also a poet and an incredible person in her own right. The play follows her from a young age through to her death, and we see her face obstacles, in the forms of men who talk over her and see her as a pretty object, women who look at her and see only her race, and the other difficulties a woman must face in Elizabethan England.
To say that Emilia herself was a proto-feminist is something of an understatement. She was one of the first published female writers from England and has written lines such as the immortal,
“Men, who forgetting they were born of women, do like vipers deface the wombs wherein they were bred.”
, which is something I wish I could have memorised and yelled in some of my exes’ faces long before this point. It is also thought that Shakespeare took inspiration from (read: copied) some of the lines of poetry Emilia wrote and words she spoke, to the extent that many female characters in his plays share her name. This is explored in Emilia when the titular character goes to a production of Othello and gets up onstage to perfectly complete the dialogue between Emilia and Desdemona – since she was the one who wrote them.
We aren’t actually sure whether any of this speculation is true. Emilia may never have even known Shakespeare, but it is entirely beside the point. When will we stop identifying women by the men surrounding them? This play demands this question of the audience and continues to attack and challenge our preconceptions throughout the plot and beyond it, once the actors have taken their bows.
The play itself was not the best written or the most insightful. There were times I felt frustration at the cheap, played-for-laughs jokes, or the overt references to Brexit when discussing Emilia’s race. Nor was it conducted in an innovative setting using different and exciting theatrical techniques. Despite the way in which The Globe was used to the play’s advantage (walking amongst the ‘groundlings’, ridiculing the helicopters circling ahead), none of the theatrical techniques in place really grabbed my attention. None of these facts, however, take away from the fact that it was one of the most important and powerful pieces of theatre I think I’ve ever seen.
Comprising of a company of entirely female actors and artists, Emilia was a tour de force through feminist theory, using Emilia’s experiences as a guide. This culminated in a rousing (this word is another understatement) monologue from Emilia herself to all women. In light of the #MeToo movement, this is more timely than ever before and it left me and most of the women (and some of the men) surrounding me in floods of angry and determined tears.
Emilia first assures us that she speaks for all women, as she holds “a muscle memory of every woman who came before me”, before becoming the take-no-shit, beaten-down and hardened woman we have seen her grow into throughout the events of her life and the play. The play ends with Clare Perkins (the oldest incarnation of Emilia in the play) bellowing over the noise of the crowds watching and cheering her on, screaming and clapping and sobbing, that “if they try to burn you, may your fire be stronger than theirs so you can burn the whole fucking house down”.
[Essential viewing. So essential that it needs to be brought back. How about it, Michelle Terry? (She’s the artistic director of The Globe and she commissioned this play to be written. She will also, hopefully, be the one to extend its run to last for as long as humanly possible.) – TBB]