Writer: Morgan Lloyd Malcolm
Director: Nicole Charles
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
The grand library that stretches across the back of the Globe’s stage is unlikely to include any works by the writer Emilia Bassano Lanier, whose long life is being celebrated in an epic production on a scale commonly associated with the plays of her contemporary, William Shakespeare. Unlike him, she is overlooked by history, but, then, she is a woman
Morgan Lloyd Malcom’s new play is part biography, part 16th/17th Century romp and part feminist tract speaking directly to a modern audience. The different forms do not always sit comfortably together. On a stage extended forward to embrace the standing part of the audience, Emilia’s story unfolds, performed by an all-female cast, dressed in lavish costumes, designed by Joanna Scotcher. Nicole Charles’ expansive production works well in drawing in the audience, but an inability to settle on whether the play is a historical drama or a roaring comedy proves costly.
Three actors – Leah Harvey, Vinette Robinson and Clare Perkins – play Emilia at different ages, all three hovering on stage for most of the evening. She was born in London in 1569 and the play’s action takes us through her education and introduction to Court. Always a misfit, she spurns the opportunity to marry, opting instead to be the mistress of Lord Henry Carey (Carolyn Pickles), because such an arrangement will give her the freedom to write. “I will never be at peace so long as I have no voice” she declares later.
Becoming pregnant by Carey, she enters into a marriage of convenience with the gay Alphonso Lanier (Amanda Wilkin) and then meets Will Shakespeare, who seduces her and plagiarises her writing. Possibly, she is the Dark Lady of his Sonnets and she sees in him the opportunities that her gender deny her. Charity Wakefield’s screeching Bard goes straight from witnessing childbirth to writing Love’s Labours Lost. Some of the jokes in the play are better.
Emilia’s life story is fascinating, but diversions into broad and often repetitive comedy become increasingly irritating. Running at just under three hours, the production often feels painfully drawn out and it is the comedy scenes that most need trimming. When the play becomes darker in its later stages, fatigue has already begun to set in, but accounts of Emilia’s efforts to educate and empower abused women from the wrong side of a Thames bridge are still moving.
If we are to believe that Emilia and her cohorts are fighting a real battle for their voices to be heard, the play needs to give them real opponents. Here, the men are all written and wildly overplayed for comedy as if they are a bunch of clowns and, on the evidence that we see, the women would have had them well beaten 400 years before modern feminists came into the picture. This typifies how the play’s inconsistency of tone often undermines its serious purpose, which is to make an impassioned plea for gender equality.
When the play reaches its more sober final act, the tone becomes more constant, building up to a closing speech which has a shuddering impact. Perkins shouts out into the night sky above the River Thames an eloquent denunciation of female suppression over the centuries, her voice filled with fiery anger. Even if much of what has gone before becomes quickly forgettable, this ending will live long in the memory.
Runs until 1 September 2018 | Image: Helen Murray