Emilia Bassano Lanier was one hell of a woman. Born in 1569, she was one of the first Englishwomen to publish an original collection of poems. She was a mother, theological visionary, a radical poet, the founder of a school, a feminist. She is rumoured to be the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.
Morgan Lloyd Malcolm has written the story of her remarkably long life with an astuteness that makes you sit up in reverence. She gives a tenderness that reminds us of the vulnerability of which Emilia is robbed, while profanity speaks to her pure badassery. It is true Emilia is the subject of the piece, but Morgan’s words see each and every woman that came before Emilia, have come since her, and are yet to come, and serenades their honour.
Traditional storytelling conventions are challenged in Nicole Charles’ magnificent production. In it, the audience – specifically the groundlings – is a character. Joanna Scotcher’s design extends the original Globe stage to form a crescent shape, which hugs the crowd and brings them into focus. The notion of a lead actor is abandoned. Emilia is played by not one actress, but three: Leah Harvey, Clare Perkins and Vinette Robinson. They are united in the blue hues of Scotcher’s costume. When one takes the lead, the other two diligently watch over her with the caring warmth of sisterly love.
The story of the life of one woman takes centre stage, but the ensemble is one of equals. Almost every actor takes on at least four roles. There’s a fleeting fear that this will jar, but the transitions are so seamless the cast appears twice as large as the 13 it is. And the casting is ingenious. Emilia’s final speech takes on a greater significance, a higher meaning from the mouth of a black woman. Perkins’ delivery is urgent; it’s impassioned; it’s arresting.
The commitment to the minutiae of the piece is impressive. A scene on the Thames is underscored by a wordless version of River by French-Cuban musical duo Ibeyi, played on a mix of shawms, dulcians, bagpipes and a sackbut. The combination of Renaissance instruments and contemporary beats mirrors the spirit of the play: it is both then, and now.
Those looking for a pitch perfect representation of Elizabethan England risk disappointment. There are indeed perfect morsels of truth here, but Emilia is more than that: it is a memory, a dream, a feeling. It is the essence of a woman too long forgotten by the books of history. Emilia is a play that transcends time, and place, to find meaning and relevance in a world far removed from its own.