An empowering, inspirational and powerful retelling about the dark lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Emilia Bassano. Jonathan Penney reviews:

Having transferred from the iconic Shakespeare’s Globe, Emilia absorbs the charm that this historic site holds and successfully transforms the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre into its own version of Shakespeare’s stomping ground. From the outset, the audience are plunged into the retelling of this strong character, born in the Bard’s time and eluded to as the Dark Lady of his sonnets.

But Emilia is more than a muse or inspiration – a poet and writer in her own right, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm paints a detailed picture of a woman struggling to succeed in a man’s world.

Sound familiar?

Emilia Vaudeville Theatre

Clare Perkins, Saffron Coomber and Adelle Leonce (image courtesy of Helen Murray)

The action is brought to life throughout the auditorium, encapsulating the entire theatre into this engrossing story. Superbly achieved, the ensemble cast obtain the ideal balance for an uplifting, tragic narrative. Hilarity and adversity combine to bring new audiences to the attention of this uncommonly told tale.

The show centres around three stages of Emilia’s life, portrayed by Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce and Clare Perkins respectively. Having three actresses play the role provides the ability to showcase the depth and complexity of the titular character’s daily struggles. Each Emelia has the opportunity to demonstrate a variety of emotive events, which provide the foundation for the character that Emilia eventually explodes into during a final battle cry, a gut-wrenching call to arms for women throughout history.

Malcolm’s superlative writing pushes the cast to provide heart-wrenching moments, yet within a few minutes have the audience belly laughing. Emilia is a perfect example of an exceedingly well-written book, as the ensemble navigate through the perils of a misogynist tudor society.

Emilia Vaudeville Theatre

Jenni Maitland & cast (image courtesy of Helen Murray)

Director Nicole Charles‘ all-female casting is another clever nod to the notable sexism that surrounded women of the era, where even female roles in plays were performed by men. By outwardly yet softly mocking the society of the period, Charles adds a light-hearted tone to some of the troubled circumstances Emilia encounters. However, this does not detract from the vulgarity of certain male character actions – Malcolm poignantly balances humour against the emotional and physical brutality that many women of the time faced.

Do not dismiss the women of the past, or the women in the present. Listen to them. Embrace their voices.

And it all builds to a profoundly powerful head. Perkins’ final monologue is incredibly motivational and emotionally charged. Leaving the audience feeling so empowered after a performance is a daunting prospect, but together Perkins and Malcolm obtain this with ease. The eldest of the protagonist’s incarnations shows the audience how much she has developed since she was a child. And it’s a breath-taking watch,

If they try to burn you, may your fire be stronger than theirs so you can burn the whole fucking house down

With the popularity of shows like Hamilton and Six, historical stories are now being modernised without changing the entire narrative. With up-to-date references and hilarity throughout, Emilia is no exception. An emotive book, superb cast performances, a combination of modern & traditional music and a set that embraces the entire theatre are all to be applauded.

But ultimately, what makes this show such a display of brilliance is how relevant and inspiring Emilia Bassano is.

We are all Emilia.

★★★★★

Emilia is playing at the Vaudeville Theatre, booking until 15 June 2019. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit the website.