The Filmed ‘Emilia’ Shares A Fiery Feminist Play from the West End

In celebration of Women’s History Month, the filmed version of the British play Emilia is available to watch online. While it’s clear it was filmed for archival purposes and not for public viewing, it’s worth watching.  Women in any era can relate to this energetic and fiery depiction of the life of one of England’s forgotten female writers. (NBA: 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Nicole Ackman

My first experience with the play Emilia was watching it in its original run at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the banks of London’s Thames River in August of 2018. I was simultaneously nearly paralyzed with grief at the thought of how many women’s stories have been forgotten and extremely energized to be part of uplifting the work of both female historical figures and modern female filmmakers. Watching it again online in March of 2021, with all the news of Sarah Everard’s murder in London and the police’s mishandling of her vigil swirling in my head, it left me in angry tears once more. It is also a story of the frustrating way in which women have been mistreated and erased from history by men. 

Written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and directed by Nicole Charles, Emilia is a story of a female poet who was a contemporary of William Shakespeare. And while you’ve undoubtedly heard of the Bard and are familiar with his work, it’s much less likely that you know about Emilia Lanier. According to Malcolm in the show’s introduction, the play is “asking questions about who gets to tell their story and whose voices are heard both onstage and off.” The show doesn’t just have a lot to say about feminism; it’s backed up by having an all-female creative team and a diverse cast of women playing all the male and female roles. 

The show first ran at Shakespeare’s Globe from August to September of 2018, before transferring to the Vaudeville Theatre in London’s West End from March to June of 2019. It won three Olivier Awards and garnered largely positive reviews. Emilia was filmed at the Vaudeville on May 29, 2019, for archival purposes. However, in the face of the pandemic, the team decided to share the archival recording with the public first in November 2020 and now again for the month of March in honor of Women’s History Month. 

Three women – Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce, and Clare Perkins – portray Emilia at different ages, with the other two always nearby to watch and support the other iteration of themselves. As the eldest Emilia, Perkins also acts as a narrator to lead the audience through Emilia’s life. All three actors do an excellent job at bringing this woman to life, bringing both humor and agony to the character and creating a cohesive portrait despite sharing the role. The play explores how Emilia’s exoticism was both fetishized and feared (she was certainly Italian and likely of Jewish and North African descent), so it seems appropriate that three actresses of color play her. 

The play follows Emilia from her father’s death when she is young to her being raised by a noblewoman who educates her and introduces her to a circle of friends. She becomes the mistress of an important nobleman who indulges her love of poetry before becoming a mother and getting married to a distant relation, Alfonso Lanier. Amanda Wilkin is hilarious as Alfonso, who clearly lacks the brains or ambition that Emilia has in spades. 

The show then shifts to explore the possible relationship Emilia may have had with Shakespeare, portrayed charmingly by Charity Wakefield. Historians still disagree about whether Emilia is the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets and whether or not they were romantically involved. But the play shows them as such, and their verbal sparring is one of the highlights. At one point in the second act of the play, when asked if she is the woman from Shakespeare’s poems, Emilia demands, “Is this how I will be remembered?” 

The play follows Emilia to the end of her life through heartache and loss and new beginnings. The feminist rumblings of the play are at times a little on the nose, but it works onstage in a way that it might not in a film. The heavy topics, from how women lose their sense of self when they become a mother to how women become victims of domestic abuse, are offset with humorous moments in a way that never trivializes the issues of the female characters. From the way that women are trained to not take up too much space to her concern about her legacy as an artist to her immigrant heritage being questioned, there is much that modern women can relate to in Emilia’s experiences in Elizabethan England. 

The show mixes the period accurately and the modern in its language and movement, encouraging the audience to make those connections. The simple wooden frame staging brings to mind a playhouse from the era, and the beautiful costumes help ground us in the period. Overall, it’s a fairly simplistic staging that allows the performances and the script to be the main focus. 

The play’s filmed recording is not the highest quality, and particularly its sound suffers, but it serves to share this incredible show with a wider audience. With a play like this that acknowledges its audience so much, it’s impossible to replicate the electricity of being there in the theatre. However, there are still powerful moments that bring chills, even watching a subpar recording on a screen. 

“I will never be at peace as long as I have no voice,” Emilia laments in the show. With Emilia, Malcolm and Charles not only help give Emilia back her lost voice, but they utilize an all-female team to do so in a beautiful reflection of Emilia’s life work. The director, Nicole Charles, says in the introduction that the play helps “to enable [Emilia Lanier] to claim her place in the cannon.” This show is full of energy and power. Emilia speaks to womanhood both today and four hundred years ago and introduces the world to an incredible female poet that has too long been forgotten. 

© Nicole Ackman (03/18/21) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce, and Clare Perkins in Emilia

Middle Photo: Charity Wakefield in Emilia

Bottom Photo: The company of Emilia

Photo Credits: Helen Murray 

Does it pass the Bechdel test?

It passes with flying colors. Even aside from the fact that the cast is entirely women, there are many scenes with women speaking to each other about various topics, including writing.

Tags: Emilia, Nicole Ackman, theatre, west end

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Nicole Ackman is an FF2 Media Associate based in North Carolina, after living in London and New York. She graduated from Elon University with a Bachelors degree in History and Strategic Communication and from City University of London with a Masters degree in Culture, Policy, and Management. She is a theatre and film critic and is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. Her taste in film tends towards period dramas, movie musicals, and anything starring Saoirse Ronan. In addition to film, she is passionate about history, theatre, Disney parks, and classic novels by female writers.
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