There’s a force blowing off the stage in director Lois Anderson’s production of Emilia. It feels like a stiff, invigorating wind. In fact, it’s a combination of confidence and fury.
Emilia, which was commissioned by London’s Globe Theatre, is a fantastical history that centres real-life characters. Emilia Bassano (or Lanier) was the first Englishwoman to become a professional poet. Some see her work as proto-feminist and some believe she may have been the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Shakespeare is a character in the play too, but you already know who he is — and that’s kind of the point: Emilia is about the silencing of women’s voices.
The rights to produce Emilia come with a note from playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm: “This play was written to be performed by an all-female cast of diverse women.” Anderson has run with that notion to excellent effect: her production features players who are diverse in terms of race, age, ability/disability, neurology, sexual orientation, gender identification, and so on. That sense of inclusiveness, that sense of community, is, I suspect, a significant source of the confidence that’s flowing from the stage: these players know that they have one another’s backs.
To respect this sense of ensemble, director Anderson has asked me not to single out individual artists for criticism or praise and, because that sensibility is so essential to this project, I’m happy to oblige.
We’ve talked about the confidence. Let’s explore the fury.
Emilia is enraged by the degradation and exploitation of women, the denial of agency. The title character repeatedly finds herself boxed in by the selfishness and cruelty of men: a cozened mistress, she’s forced into a sham marriage. The Shakespeare of this story understands Emilia just well enough to steal her words and perceptions for some of his best work. And Emilia’s own literary ambitions are repeatedly thwarted. The script’s anger is righteous, of course, and it’s bracing to feel the force of it.
As a play, Emilia doesn’t always work for me, though — and, yes, I’m aware that I’m a cis white guy saying this. From that position, my take is that Emilia is smart, swaggering, and often funny —and sometimes it feels like a pamphlet that’s been strung out to the length of a manifesto. The plot is stuffed with events, but it doesn’t have a central action or nuanced, sustained relationships. Rather, Emilia is a series of statements and the characters are reduced to types. When Emilia is befriended by the whores of Bankside, for instance, they are a uniformly jolly bunch. The playwright isn’t interested in them as naturalistic figures: she’s using them as vessels to carry an idea about female solidarity. Small wonder then that, in this world, the narrative can often feel perfunctory: when Emilia finally decides it’s time to publish, the immediate obstacles to getting that done are overcome in minutes: “Hey! I’ve got money!”; “Hey! I know a publisher!”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this: Emilia is a kind of agitprop; I like agitprop and I support Emilia’s messages. I’m just saying that, for a play that’s so frankly agenda-driven, it feels long.
That’s a problem with the play, though, in my opinion, not the production. The set is surrounded by pages and pages of blank paper. There’s one permanent set piece: a stack of books. The elegant space this creates easily accommodates the large cast, and the warmth of the paper feels antique. The costumes, which are accented by ruffles made of netting and tie-on Elizabethan collars, are witty and, I’m sure, cost-efficient. More richness comes from the music, which is played by an on-stage musician and the actors.
In the final image, when the players all face the audience and sing directly to us, it’s stirring. And it speaks to the greatest strength of this production: the embodiment of solidarity.
EMILIA By Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. Directed by Lois Anderson. A United Players production the Jericho Arts Centre on Friday, November 12. Running until December 5. Tickets.
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