By Darby Turnbull
One of the innumerable tragedies in this thing we call civilisation is that is that a woman’s voice, unless she’s exceptional, is lost to time; or rather stolen, suppressed, erased by a patriarchal monolith that relies on that censure to hold itself up. Unless she’s part of the monarchy or nobility (even then it’s compromised) her personality, worldview, ideas, creative and intellectual contributions don’t stand a chance, again unless she’s exceptional. Emilia Bassano; a poet and contemporary of William Shakespeare’s, she’s not often spoken of without speculation as to whether she’s the subject of his ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets. Her life is cloaked in ambiguity which is why she’s an easy projection for writer Morgan Lloyd Malcolm to explore the suppression of women’s creative and personal autonomy and expression throughout the centuries. It’s an exciting and fruitful concept that I feel wasn’t matched in execution.
The text opts for sweeping generalisations, rousing platitudes and an almost aggressive resistance to the kind of nuanced theatre making that would only expand its vision. It’s very nice to have your worldview affirmed and the text is brash and blunt in its message; righteous anger is an essential tool in creative and personal emancipation and liberty (absofuckinglutely) and if the text wanted to go there something very profound could possibly be said for having to say the same things over and over hoping it’ll stick. We can clap, we can snap our fingers at accessible, empowering statements (there are many) but it’s up to the audience if they hold up to scrutiny; many audience members rose to their feet in rapturous ovation last night, others among us had questions.
There’s a dissonance in what we’re being told and what is conveyed dramatically; the author insists on the universality of the experiences being represented but exposes the limits of that, not to mention internal bias at every turn.
Emilia as a character is almost without flaw, being played by three different performers doesn’t give her dimension, we’re constantly being told how fabulous she is, how inspiring, how right she is. The opposition she faces is mostly chauvinistic; less exploration into her development as an artist and a person in a position of relative privilege. One of the most glaring instances being class division; there is an instance where Emilia references not having the time to write to the best of her ability after becoming a mother because of ‘night feedings’. Emilia Bassano, may have been an incredibly involved parent who did the leg work in caring for her children but a woman of her class has a household staff who are instrumental in childcare and domestic duties. But an Emilia who has a staff of women to help her doesn’t make her relatable to a broad audience, so they’re carefully erased. When she does interact with women outside of her class; sex workers, labourers they sycophantically adore and uplift her. The vitality of connection and community across backgrounds to expand, challenge, empower worldviews isn’t explored to its potential because we need to be told yet again that Emilia rules. When one of those women, Eve, a poet in her own right is targeted and burned at the stake she’s used to make an emotional point. She’s not a character, she’s barely even a symbol; we barely know anything about her and she’s only brought out to make a point that women who spoke out were targeted for persecution and then things move on.
Queerness, both male and female is touched on in limited and borderline homophobic terms. Emilia is introduced to a female patron who’s witty and charming and instead of making a case for the possibility of sexual coercion in patronage across gender binaries, she’s just a predatory lesbian, so far so trope. Emilia’s husband is inferred to be gay, at first he’s the butt of catty punchlines; a vain buffoon but then Emilia must be enlightened enough to connect with him about their difference and their compromises socially, which of course he’s never considered. I call bullshit, Queer men can be complicit in patriarchy, perhaps vapidly or recklessly but they definitely think about what their identities mean within a patriarchy.
Emilia’s ethic and cultural background is ambiguous, we know she was a first generation migrant, and it’s speculated she was Jewish, Italian or North African but the writer doesn’t know and doesn’t interrogate what those identities mean within a broader socio-political context or her as a person. Instead, there are some oblique references to her otherness, her displacement, and some rote contemporary shorthand for racist microaggressions eg. ‘where are you from?’.
Her relationship with William Shakespeare is frustrating in its depiction because of a lack of exploration and expansion in key moments. Their first conversation features some choice phrases from the Dark Lady Sonnets some of which he uses to neg her and also intellectually seduce her. Later Emilia is shown to feel incredibly violated when the sonnets are circulated and it’s obvious, she’ the subject. She says they were meant to be between them. We never see the assertion of that boundary, obviously we should take her at her word, but her feelings would have as much resonance for her as the audience if we saw and felt it alongside her. I’ll also mention the text doesn’t refer to the fact that whilst 28 of Shakespeare’s sonnets are about the ‘Dark Lady’ the other 126 are about a ‘fair youth’ possibly Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton and incredibly homoerotic into the bargain. Also, a later scene shows Emilia’s words being quotes verbatim during a performance of Othello. What are we meant to infer? That she’s an uncredited collaborator? He used her words to enhance his limited characterisation of women? I’m not a Shakespeare apologist by any means but so many of the questions surrounding his authorship rely on picking and choosing facts to support the thesis. There are hints that Emilia and Shakespeare could have a rich, nuanced discussion about art, opportunity and dramaturgy but they are just reduced to types talking at each other. Also, Lloyd Malcolm makes the decision to have Shakespeare return from beyond the grave to support her when their last onstage interaction was about how she felt violated by him as a person and a writer. The text doesn’t support this level of complex emotional contradiction. It picks and chooses facts and context in favour of palatable, accessible statements.
Why for example is the monarchy never explored? The fact that in the generation before and during Emilia’s lifetime England was ruled by two politically savvy, hypervigilant, shrewd women? Queens Mary and Elizabeth? Elizabeth who, whilst being a witty, cultured, brilliant politician also upheld patriarchy, colonisation and the torture and execution of dissidents. Followed by King James VI after Elizabeth’s historically long reign. What does it mean for Emilia on a cultural, personal or gender level to live under those contradictions and vastly changing political landscapes? Never mind because the text is actively resistant to the complexity that intersectionality demands.
Instead it papers over those limitations by casting (cynically or naively) performers from under represented or marginalized communities but doesn’t dramatize their experiences. Representation matters is a popular #, yes it unequivocally does. So, make it matter.
Such inert dramaturgy is frustrating because this cast is filled with formidably accomplished multi-disciplinary theatre makers who are doing what the text does not. They display their power, their passion and skill. For theatre nerds, the opportunity to see this ensemble of artists on stage together is indelible.
As the Emilias; Manali Datar positively glows with the confident self-assurance in her potential and how exhausting, infuriating and demoralising it is to keep that light burning. After spending most of the first act as a stately presence Cessalee Stovall devastates as Emilia enters her darkest period of grief and profoundly conveys the darkness of doubt and the threat of hopelessness but also a warm, innate curiosity and fascination with the people and places around her, Lisa Maza comes close to setting the Playhouse theatre alight in an oration about harnessing rage rather than being defeated by it after continuous confirmation of society’s bullish persecution. The strongest moments in Lloyd Malcolm’s writing are when the characters thoughts and feelings develop in real time, often in some incendiary speeches; the final one particularly, which is why it’s so glaring when what is built around them feels lacking.
Izabella Yena, usually a standby heroically steps up to take on a multitude of roles; filling in for Jing-Xuan Chan; she’s playfully bawdy as Cordelia, one of Emilia’s contemporaries and mid performance takes on the role of William Shakespeare after Heidi Arena had to be taken to hospital. It’s fascinating because her Shakespeare seems radically different from Arena’s who had hitherto played the role with bumbling awkwardness (I’d love to see where that interpretation fits into the whole production) Yena on the other hand is all swagger and rascally self-importance. All my admiration goes to her co-stars who rise to challenge with aplomb as the tone of the performance makes such a distinct shift. It’s a wonderful insight into the comradery that can exist within a company and the organic joys that can emerge under unfortunate circumstances. We wish Heidi Arena a speedy recovery.
Emma J Hawkins comes close to walking away with the whole evening and shows why she’s one of our most underrated grande dames of the theatre with her witty, urbane and empathetic performance as Lady Margaret Clifford, the relish with which she attacks her lines and owns the stage is palpable. Genevieve Picot, another theatrical heavy hitter (seriously this cast is like a Marvel ensemble in terms of just how many stone cold veterans there are in it) does droll cynicism like no other as Lord Henry Carey, Emilia’s first lover, patron and ultimate betrayer. She brings a disaffected lushness even as he’s making life altering decisions for others.
Catherine Glavicic and Sophie Lampel are clearly having a ball in their burlesque portrayals of pompous, entitled and dangerously inept noblemen. Sarah Fitzgerald as Eve, the ultimate martyr brings a fresh delight as she explores the possibilities that poetry has opened for her. Sonya Suares brings a pained dignity and pragmatic reservation as Lady Katherine as she attempts to work within the status quo. Carita Farrer Spencer is deliciously flamboyant as the silver tongued Mary Sidney and Amanda LaBonte makes an early comedic impact Susan Bertie, the Countess of Kent as she leads her young charges in the heightened art of navigating the social demands of the nobility.
Petra Kalive’s production (I’ve admired her past work) feels like it’s still being developed or compromised by lack of time and resources; some moments come across as being overwhelmed by the size of the space rather than enveloping it. Xanthe Beesley and Jennifer Ma create some satirically, contemporary influenced, dance sequences to evoke the social machinations for women at court, but they go on for too long and are hampered by the demands of the text and can feel anachronistic for anachronism’s sake. It’s a trope that keeps making its way into period influenced pieces; evoking club, pop culture with increasingly diminishing returns. Emily Collett’s set beautifully and efficiently utilises an array of curtains and a moveable staircase. Zoe Rouse’s costumes feature some gorgeous and whimsical combinations of colours, patterns and fabrics that combine style and comfort whilst still evoking the decadence of Elizabethan fashions. Emah Fox and Sharyn Brand’s compositions and sound design alongside Katie Sfetkidis’ lighting are moodily resonant.
What’s frustrating is that the foundations are so vitally important; the story of a woman coming to terms with her anger and how it shapes her self-actualisation, developing her authorial voice and finding solidarity in community through shared learning and mobilisation and all these aspects intersecting and influencing each other; here for it.
Then again, if this production empowers and invigorates both its artists and audiences it will have served the vision it purports.
Images:Dylan Hornsby | Good Gravy Media