REVIEW: Emilia (Pop-up Globe)

Review by Jennifer Cheuk

[“Do not take my anger from me!”]

Emilia tells the story of Emilia Bassano, one of the first Englishwomen poets and the possible muse behind Shakespeare’s sonnets. However, this is not just a play about Shakespeare’s Emilia. This is a play about Emilia the discriminated poet, Emilia the feminist spirit; Emilia as Emilia. 

As soon as the performance begins, I am overwhelmed by the very tangible fact that this has been created by women. This is not a female performance refracted through the male gaze. This is a female story finally told through her words. And you can feel this immediately. There is a very obvious swell of feminist anger and spirit in the theatre.  

Bringing history to life in a contemporary space is often difficult. We must tread carefully over concepts that were previously acceptable, such as sexism and racism. It is impossible to simply uproot a story or a history from the 16th century, and re-pot it in the 21st century. The literary soil and political climate has changed. So when you retell this 16th century story, you must be weary of how you approach it from a contemporary perspective. But, Emilia does not simply transcribe history, Emilia translates history. This performance provides a modern translation of history, allowing for contemporary changes in culture, language and humour. Emilia is weary of its political implications. It recognizes our contemporary shift in knowledge and deals thoughtfully with contentious ideas.  

I love the way Emilia so fluidly intertwines different cultures into the narrative. I am often weary of performances with obviously hand-picked people of colour to fulfil their quota of pseudo-diversity. But Emilia is a performance of true and honest diversity. This performance does not use the different backgrounds of its actors for popularity or humour. Rather, this performance allows women, all women, to simply be. The female ensemble is so full of solidarity, it completely undoes perpetrated ideas of female competitiveness. I also love the commentary on “otherness”, which is simultaneously broken down with the diverse cast choice. I really must commend Miriama McDowell, not only for her casting, but for her smooth integration of cultures and languages into Emilia’s story.  I love that McDowell is both sensitive to the changes in our society and bold in her response to these changes. Her choice to have many types of women perform in Emilia is such a powerful response to the discrimination Emilia faced, and that many women still face today. 

Another feature I love about Emilia are the huge prop books on stage. Realistic, but absurdly  gargantuan, these books are a constant reminder of the male dominated literary landscape. This visual metaphor is pushed even further when the books are used as a stake to burn one of the women.  It emphasizes the very real acts of violence against female writers and the female word. This idea that men are constantly violating and dominating women; that the male word is constantly violating and dominating the female word. An eloquent metaphor, never excessive. I love that it is encompassed in all aspects of the performance, from set to script to choreography. 

Furthermore, the script writing is beyond what I expected. Not only does it showcase Emilia’s life through a female gaze, but it also acknowledges the importance of words. Emilia’s life is made up of words, and particularly now that we only know her through her writing. Morgan Lloyd Malcolm creates a script that places utmost importance on every word, every syntactic arrangement. Everything is necessary. I often find that some script writing can feel overdone, as though writers feel they must explain everything happening on stage. But with Emilia, no word is trivial. Malcolm understands the linguistic importance of Emilia’s story, and this is what makes Emilia so special. This performance does not simply showcase Emilia’s life, this performance encompasses her life. This performance is Emilia. 

I cannot say anymore about Emilia. All I can say is that Emilia is necessary. It is something you need to see. Emilia unearths a hugely important feminist poet, but does not forget our modern perspective. This performance is so necessary because it does not only tell us about Emilia, but it tells us of the injustices and discriminations that have been existing for hundreds of years. Emilia connects a 16th century story to a 21st century life. And I think this is a fantastic way to simultaneously educate audiences about the past and teach them to fight for the future. 

Emilia closes the Pop-up Globe’s New Zealand season and plays 4 to 22 March, 2020. 

Emilia is written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, directed by Miriama McDowell and produced by Alice Pearce. Acushla-Tara Kupe plays Emilia 1, Jen Van Epps plays Emilia 2 and Fiona Collins plays Emilia 3.

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