The themes explored in Emilia are not new. Gender and class inequality, male privilege, the objectification and commoditisation of female bodies – these are subjects which have provided the inspiration for art and literature for centuries. The ways in which Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s writing and Nicole Charles’s direction addresses and explores these issues, however, are startling in their rawness and clarity.
For me, the approach was twofold. There was a directness and brutality to the writing, with the strong, outspoken characters of Emilia, Lady Margaret Clifford, and the working class women. Emilia does not hold back in expressing her desires for recognition as a writer and the freedom to live her life as men can. She subscribes to patriarchal silencing only when she thinks the security of herself and her unborn child is at risk, and then begrudgingly.
Lady Margaret openly criticises her husband’s promiscuity, simultaneously noting that she is forbidden to enjoy the same pleasures – a sentiment highly reminiscent, of course, of Shakespeare’s Emilia’s speech in Othello. This scene is in fact cleverly interwoven into the play, with Emilia’s outraged commentary on Shakespeare’s appropriation of her name and opinions providing both comic value and an important point about ownership and authenticity.
Similarly, the working class women learning to read, write, and express themselves provide both light relief, and serious insight into the dangers of simply being female. Their crass humour and bolshy attitudes fail to disguise the deep-running wounds inflicted by domestic abuse, poverty, and misogynist attitudes to education.
After crying with laughter at many points in the first half, the most poignant moment of the play comes when a likeable working class woman is burned at the stake for the simple act of writing a poem. The staging of this is dramatic, with books being used to fuel the fire, which in turn ignites the blazing final speech:
‘If they try to burn you, may your fire be strong enough to burn the whole fucking house down!’
At which point, the house unanimously rose to their feet, screaming their approval. It is, at times, unsubtle.
There are, however, subtler aspects at play in the production. Emilia is played by three actresses, who are often on stage together, circling and watching, loosely representing the character at different stages of her life. Choreographically, this has echoes of courtly dances, with Emilia reclaiming both leading and following roles for herself. Early in the play, young women reclaim a traditional court dance class with hip hop moves, and a young Emilia refuses to dance with any of the ‘men’.
Dramaturgically, it is as if the older Emilia is looking back on her younger self, offering commentary and support. At one point, Clare Perkins (the oldest Emilia) gently asks Adele Leonce, the middle Emilia, ‘Are you ready?’ just before she takes the stage from Saffron Coomber. As the youngest Emilia exits, having just lost her daughter, Perkins reassures her, heartbreakingly, ‘You’ve done so well’. This was a powerful moment for me, that simple interaction representing so much within sisterhood and female support. Emilia the character was reassuring her younger self, but the breaking of the structure in this way also allowed the audience a glimpse of one creative assuring another, younger, fellow female creative that her performance had gone well.
The whole play is a riotous celebration of women supporting other women, and not just within the characters. The creative team and cast are entirely female; there are D/deaf and disabled actresses playing major characters; the theatre is even holding the West End’s first mother and baby performance. This is art promoting its message to the absolute, most inclusive full.
And its message is clear: let women tell their stories however they damn well want.
Emilia is playing at the Vaudeville Theatre until 15 June. Image by Helen Murray.