Emilia: A Review

The West End has seen an influx of shows about the women of history who have been denied the opportunities to tell their own stories: we’ve had Six (still playing at the arts Theatre), Sylvia (departed but hopefully soon to make a return), and arguably Hamilton (because you’d be a fool to watch it and not take away the information that Elizabeth Schuyler is badass), but there’s something different about Emilia.

Embracing the diverse casting of its peers, Emilia takes it further by having a stage full of women. Six does the same but with a cast of only six (plus indomitable swings, of course) playing women of history it doesn’t quite have the impact of Emilia’s stage full of women, playing the men just as Elizabethan stages displayed men playing women. And it’s to Elizabethan times that we return with this show. Emilia Bassano was a contemporary of Shakespeare who was the first published female poet and muse of the Bard. She is, like too many other powerful women kept down by the rules of their time, rather lost to history. I have to admit that I didn’t know anything about her or her story when I booked my ticket, but I booked it anyway because it seemed like something worth seeing. And I was right.

The play it Emilia’s story as she was never allowed to tell it, no doubt, but the contemporary feminist message is the beating heart of the production and it crescendos as a call to arms. There is no way to leave the theatre without a fierce love for the protagonist and an urge to find out more about her. But, as the show tells you, you won’t find anything much of her to read. Her work is not recorded or performed or taught in university courses. 

The story itself is beautifully staged. It’s an ensemble piece at the best of the genre – women gracing the stage on the sidelines to remind us of every woman whose story we still do not know. The role of Emilia herself is split between three actresses who play her as she ages: Adelle Leonce, Clare Perkins, and Saffron Coomber. All three are powerhouses who bring sensitivity and ferocity in equal measure. You will laugh and you will cry and you will be made acutely aware of your heart as it beats in your chest.

There’s a very good chance that the man sat next to you will take something very different away from Emilia. Many of the reviews from men give it scathing reviews and are harsh critics, almost like they’re watching another show entirely. But this is not a show for them. They may enjoy it, may agree with it, but it is not theirs. It’s yours. And you need to do anything you can to get a ticket.

Emiliaplays at the Vaudeville Theatre until Saturday 15thJune