Female lead stories are taking over the West End, at the moment. Emilia, a story about a 16th Century woman, is surrounded by Waitress and 9 to 5 on the Strand, and has a fellow set of 16th Century Women – Henry VIII’s wives – just around the corner in Six at the Arts Theatre. So, what is it that makes Emilia‘s story still so relevant today? It’s a call to arms.
Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s script suggests Emilia Bassano was the subject of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the motivation behind the character of Emilia in Othello. However, rather than focus on her known link to Shakespeare, what Malcolm does best with her writing is she allows Emilia to reclaim her story.
Emilia is played by three different actresses, as she enters different stages of her life – all being simply excellent. Clare Perkins, as the oldest Emilia, opens the performance and instantly oozes in the comedic elements of piece, whilst interacting with the audience – the start of further well executed audience immersion.
All three actresses bring a different element to Emilia alive. Saffron Coomber, the youngest Emilia, fans the initial flame inside Emilia to refuse to stick to the status quo. With her ascension into adulthood caused by grief, Coomber’s gut-punching cries lead into Adelle Leonce’s impassioned performance as a slightly older Emilia. Within Leonce’s performance, we see Emilia’s fervour in standing up to Shakespeare’s treatment of her with an incredible all immersive ending to Act 1. Finally, Clare Perkins as the elder Emilia ends the show by giving of the most incredible performances of a monologue you will ever see – which brought the audience immediately into a standing ovation.
The ensemble cast is truly astounding too, as each woman plays multiple roles including those of men. Karishma Balani needs commending for casting; as there is no weak link, despite the mix of experience on stage. Jackie Clune, playing multiple roles, but particularly flourishing as Eve in Act 2, is just as faultless as Cora Kirk in her West End debut – with Charity Wakefield excelling as the first woman to play William Shakespeare on stage.
Again, acclamation is due for the music, composed by Luisa Gerstein, and to the lighting by Zoe Spurr. The thread of music throughout gives Emilia cohesiveness; with the lighting by Spurr having a particular call out (spoiler) moment in Act 2.
Despite the talent behind the performances and staging elements, the pace can sometimes deteriorate due to too many feminist speeches coming from Emilia – some of these could get cut out, without losing the power of the overall message.
There is so much that could be said about this play, as it ticks all the boxes. You laugh; you cry; you get a shiver down your spine and at the end you feel like you want to fist pump and take action. The all female cast and creatives have delivered the feminist play of our time, as shown by the nods to our current society. This is an enjoyable, educational, and important piece of work that deserves more hype.