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‘Emilia’: a play review

Picture by Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash
Picture by Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash

When the UK went into it’s second lockdown at the beginning of November, I was very disappointed that I would be missing out on the shows I had booked to see. However, there was one I was still able to watch- Emilia, a new play by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, which is currently available online. Emilia explores the story of Emilia Lanier, the first professional female English language poet, who may have been the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets. The play was first performed at the Globe, but the online version was filmed at the Vaudeville Theatre in 2019. 

As it says at the start, it has not been highly edited and has not received the “Hollywood treatment” when being transferred to film format. Emilia has been left very much as it was, which I enjoyed. Unlike the filmed version of Hamilton that came out on Disney+ this summer, Emilia does not feel different to watching it in the theatre, largely because the audience atmosphere is captured so well and the high quality of the sound and picture, illustrated by the frequent shots showing the whole stage. I hope the pandemic will mean that more shows are made available to watch online, making theatre more accessible to people who otherwise would not be able to afford it or would have to travel long distances. That being said, I know that for me, nothing will ever beat physically being in the theatre and the thrill of seeing the actors perform in front of you. 

It is without doubt an amazing play, one filled with the drama of such an interesting and ground-breaking life as Emilia Lanier’s. There were many wonderfully intense scenes between just two or three characters, (for example those between Emilia and Shakespeare) which had a lot of power thanks to the wonderful main cast and their chemistry together. The three women playing Emilia (Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce and Clare Perkins) were particularly brilliant- at first I wasn’t sure about the choice to have three actors playing the same character, and wasn’t sure if their different takes on Emilia would fit together, but in the end they did and all three of them are wonderful performers in their own way. The scenes with more cast members on stage were also exciting and full of energy, but they could be a little hard to follow at times, and the physical theatre and movement sequences could have been stronger. However, this does not take away from the fact that the ensemble cast is made up of marvellous actors.

The set and lighting and effects were also impressive- the set was simple enough to not draw attention away from the action and was flexible enough to fit for many different locations. One scene which was particularly impressive was the burning scene towards the end, in which lighting and smoke and sound were used to very good effect. 

I think one of the best things about this show though, is its incredibly powerful feminist message, evident throughout and coming to a wonderful crescendo in Emilia’s dramatic monologue at the end, and the audience reaction to this was suitably explosive. It made me very proud to see such a wonderful play created and performed solely by a female team, and to see what they could accomplish together. Despite the seventeenth-century setting and story, it felt incredibly modern, because of the dialogue, the language used and the themes and topics explored, like women’s rights and immigration (Emilia herself came from an Italian immigrant background). 

The show, overall, is a triumph, and definitely deserving of the Olivier Awards it received at the end of October- Best Costume Design, Best Sound Design, and Best Entertainment or Comedy Play.   

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