Emilia, Shakespeare’s Globe, London — comedy amid the homilies – Financial Times



In a season featuring Shakespeare plays with characters named Emilia — Othello, The Winter’s Tale — Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s newly commissioned piece gives breath to their presumed inspiration, Emilia Lanier, a plausible candidate for Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. Three fine actors take the role, with Clare Perkins narrating as the older, wiser, angrier version. Young Emilia 1 (Leah Harvey) is orphaned and taken into the care of a domineering countess. Much crowd-pleasing foolery accompanies her attempts to learn deportment and dancing at the artificial world of the court. Becoming a lord’s mistress, she is conveniently married off to a gay cousin, Alphonso (Amanda Wilkin, extremely funny). But all the while she longs to write poetry and chafes against gender restrictions.

The plot is not to be taken too literally, for Emilia is much more about present pieties and anxieties than its ostensible historical period. Emilia, from a family of court musicians, is constantly asked where she is from (she was born in London to Italian immigrants) and there are pointed speeches about “invasions” of foreign workers, where suspicion of Catholics morphs into suspicion of economic migrants. Fair enough, but at times the play’s earnest homilies are merely cues for applause from virtue-signalling audience members.

In this reading, Shakespeare (delightfully played by Charity Wakefield) is a straight plagiarist, stealing lines from Emilia (this time it’s Vinette Robinson), who haughtily tells him: “Do not assume to teach me my craft.” Most writers would happily accept a few pointers from the Bard. Author Mary Sidney, the poet’s sister, is oddly presented as a predatory lesbian. The play seems to have run aground by the interval, but the second half comes to life as Emilia meets a rambunctious group of coarse washerwomen, who curiously know all about Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence and its supposed muse. She begins to teach them about poetry, but like all such female endeavours in the play it must be beaten down by the patriarchy, in a ridiculous scene that combines poor stagecraft with mawkish sentimentality.

It’s notoriously difficult to extract from Shakespeare’s own plays exactly what their author thought about any subject, but all too obvious in the case of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. Perkins whips the audience into a frenzy with her final rabble-rousing speech, but it might as well have hashtags: #MeToo, #TimesUp, etc. Mine? #batteredintosubmission.

★★★☆☆

To September 1, shakespearesglobe.com