I often find myself out of step with audience’s responses to shows, most recently with Hadestown or Bat out of Hell to name a few. Usually I’m fine with having a dissenting opinion, but with Emilia, I’ve been shocked by how different my thoughts have been to nearly all the glowing reports I’ve seen, especially from people whose opinion I highly value. Simply put, I applaud the show’s intentions but it didn’t sweep me away as it has for many others.
Our protagonist is Emilia Bassano (1569 – 1645), a writer and poet living in England at a time when women’s aspirations were usually limited to marrying well and bearing children. Very little is known about Emilia and so the show’s writer, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, has taken creative licence.
We follow Emilia from adolescence to old age. She is passionate, fiery and angered that she isn’t handed the opportunity to share her stories. This infuriates her as she witnesses the rising success of the Bard himself William Shakespeare, her lover who it appears has taken some of Emilia’s ideas without crediting her. The show’s very clear message which in the finale is shouted to the audience in a rousing monologue, is that men have oppressed women for too long and women should be angry.
Emilia is played by three actresses to cover the different stages of her life. She has admirable resolve at the start but we see these seeds of anger are planted inside her, when she is groomed to please men from a young age, forced to marry to her cousin to disguise that her child was conceived out of wedlock. As Emilia grows she becomes full of resentment for her predicament, particularly as Shakespeare appears to be a thieving writer who doesn’t deserve his success. To Emilia’s credit, she does not give up on seeking to share her stories and eventually finds inventive ways of doing so but pays a painful price for it.
In a twist on Shakespearean traditions, the whole cast is female. This serves it would seem to degrade the male characters who are all either portrayed as bumbling idiots or aggressive oppressors (or both). This portrayal, I suppose, was intentional to play for comedic effect. In one scene, a man storms onto the stage and declares ‘Silence, there’s an important man coming through’ which was met with uproarious laughter from the audience.
Many feminists have been trying to shake off the label that they are all angry women who hate all men for decades. This play seemed to deliberately play right into this stereotype which grew tiresome after a while. I’ve always been of the view that we can only rise by lifting others. By this I mean, we have to be smart in the way that we seek to change attitudes. But with this show, I felt that it just seeks to blame men for all the misfortunes that women have endured and the result is it comes across as bitter and whiny rather than impactful. I think audiences are smarter than the show gives them credit for and these messages contained in the show’s many monologues lacked nuance and didn’t need to be rammed in as forcefully as they were.
There were many elements I did enjoy such as its incorporation of live music, the elaborate Elizabethan costumes and the comedic modernisms weaved into the text to bring a sense of relevance to today. There were also some beautifully choreographed scenes. I was most impressed by how the birth scene was portrayed as an ensemble effort to characterise the superhuman strength required to endure labour at a time before modern medicine.
I’m supposedly part of the target demographic for this show so should have enjoyed it, but I wasn’t that moved by it. My best advice is to go to see it yourself and make up your own mind because my thoughts don’t appear to be representative of what the majority think.
Emilia is running at the Vaudeville Theatre and booking until 15th June 2019 at the time of writing.