Now, please note when I call Emilia a feminist, I am fully aware that this a term coined well after her time. Note that I call her this lovingly, as this is what she was, whether she knew it or not. A more fitting title would be “Emilia – The proto-feminist”, but it’s not as catchy. Humour me!
First of all, the irony is not lost on me that this incredibly feminist play showed at the Vaudeville Theatre on International Women’s Day, while a march for female liberation passed by. I actually got to the theatre in time to hear the cries for change & see the various banners being held up by the women and their male allies. Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s telling of Emilia’s story is simply genius!
The play itself was a delicious exercise in subversion, with the cast being all female, playing any & all male roles… just like the male actors playing all the roles of Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe. Subversive irony – love it! The male characters embodied the masculine charm & wit perfectly, with a quick change of costume and a slight change in hairstyle, the actresses transformed. Could this be saying something about gender being a performance? I think so.
This play very cleverly addressed the rumours of Shakespeare’s true inspiration for works like Sonnet 130, (My mistress eye’s are nothing like the sun… ). The Sonnet seemed to heavily embody the tumultuous and passionate relationship that the play suggested they had. There were whispers of a ‘dark lady’ in the poet’s life due to Sonnets 127 – 154, & this is widely debated. Who could have imagined that the ‘dark lady’ may have just been a lady of a darker complexion, rather the apparent implied meaning of an ‘un-virtuous’ woman?
Emilia, showing artistic promise & a talent for words from the age of 7 should have been able to have her work immortalised without opposition or restriction, as a woman would be able to do now, (in most parts of the world). I make this distinction as there are still topics that are considered ‘taboo’ or ‘unthinkable’ for a woman to discuss. Though I have my doubts that any topic a woman may want to discuss should be ‘taboo’ or ‘unthinkable’ at all.
Here again, the play illustrated that any challenge to the patriarchy, whether legitimate or just would be treated in a hostile manner. For example: Emilia’s notes to women to empower them & give them a voice were met with scorn and disdain by the men of her time. Condemning her, they could not imagine that a woman could be so bold as to suggest that perhaps Eve was not at fault at all?
Before I get too political, jump into an in depth analysis of feminism & the merits of this argument, let me get back to the play.
The progression of protagonist in 3 separate actresses (Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce & Clare Perkins) – each just as passionate & talented as the last – was brilliantly done. Each of them asking each other “are you ready?” before taking the role onwards. It was a clear transition that helped the audience to keep up with Emilia & literally watch her grow. It also really helped to establish a clear timeline in the play, illustrating the changes & challenges the character faced. As a young girl, she was taught to commodify herself, making her lady parts her “meal ticket” (as her mother calls it). She watched the men in court eroticise her. As a mixed race woman, Emilia will have felt a odd mix of comfort & displacement. The former as she was brought up with considerable wealth, enjoyed an education & an introduction to court. The latter due to the constant reminders of her difference & “otherness”.
Her useless husband Alfonso Lanier gambled & spent more time revelling with his friends relied on the fortune of their shared benefactor, Lord Henry Carey, the older man that propositions Emilia to become his mistress. With her ‘meal-ticket’ seemingly securing her a future, though not permanent, she is able to continue her writing & meet with like minded creatives (including Shakespeare) in the home of Mary Sidney.
Mary Sidney also seems to desire Emilia in the same way as the men of court, it is only the sobering warning of Lady Margaret Clifford that saves her from Mary’s clutches. After a series of unfortunate events, losing her wealth, her infant daughter & arguably her mind, Emilia finds solace in the friendship of kind hearted Lady Margaret Clifford. Both scorned by men & eager to leave a lasting legacy of female strength they begin to share notes of encouragement for the women in their sphere of influence. Fuelled by the pain of her loss, Emilia sets her sights on effecting real change, but she is not openly supported by women like Lady Katherine.
Once the women confide in each other, they realise they are capable of far more than they once thought, each of them lending their skills to their cause. Namely Eve, who wrote a beautiful poem denouncing patriarchal power & empowering women. This does not happen without a reminder of the brutish nature of men, as two probable witch hunters stumble into their safe space & try to enforce their patriarchal power. This interruption gives the women an unwelcome reminder that their work is vital if a change is to occur. A plan is then hatched to get Emilia’s work published, & with the patronage of Lady Katherine, she briefly triumphs.
History repeats itself, as Eve is severely punished, books are burned & the legacy of Emilia seems to be in ruins. The play ends in a very feminist call to arms at the end “may your flame burn bright enough to burn their f*cking house to the ground!”. This was met with extensive clapping from the audience. It then became clear to me what the speech meant. Any woman that is able to effectively use her voice, share her talent & become widely recognised or immortalised in her art is her legacy. Though Emilia clearly wanted a feminist revolution in her time, she may be pleased to see how far we’ve come, but equally angry that it’s taken so long?
When will women be treated as equals?
That aside, Emilia is a masterpiece & a must-see! It’s showing at the Vaudeville Theatre now! If you love a bargain, which I’m sure you do, you can get a great deal on a ticket via Helen’s List. Use this link & get in touch for the promo code. Thank me later!