You may have missed Emilia when it played a West End run at the Vaudeville Theatre last year - those who saw it knew it was something special that should not be missed, yet it still remained a secret, eclipsed by the more publicised Waitress next door. With theatres remaining shut through most of the year, it has given some lesser known shows their time to shine, and now it is the turn of Emilia with the unplanned release of the filmed version.
Emilia is the story of Emilia Bassano. Emilia was a 17th Century poet, a proud feminist and the suspected Dark Lady in Shakespeare's sonnets. Her story is told in this play with three women playing the role at different times in her life. While the story is rooted in the 17th Century, the show is brought up to date with the use of current dialogue interspersed with Emilia's own poetry in an innovative way. Immediately, comparisons can be drawn to Six - a historic show updated with modern references with feminism at the forefront.
As with so many shows set in history, it toes the line between outdated notions that seem laughable now (the shock of a woman being on stage) to moments that are still sadly prominent in todays society. The theme of feminism stays at the heart of the story, taking you through an emotional rollercoaster of hope, heartbreak, tragedy and injustice. The entire cast are made up of women, playing the roles of all characters, regardless of gender in a brilliant role reversal to Shakespeare shows which were solely performed by men.
While the themes are serious, this doesn't mean the show isn't full of laughs. From the moment one of the three Emilia's, Clare Perkins, strides on to the stage, the laughs follow. The laughs are not played at the expense of the story and, if anything, highlight how important this story is. A line about "mansplaining" is particularly brilliant.
The use of staging in Emilia is brilliant - with the action taking place in one of the boxes in the audience before seamlessly transferring back to the stage. While the show likes to break the fourth wall from time to time, it is never cringeworthy as it can be in other shows. Instead, it allows the cast to create a more intimate story, ensuring the audience understand and relate to what is happening on the stage. The show also enjoys self referencing talking about the escapism of theatre - something we all desperately need this year.
This show has many strengths going for it - one of them is the dialogue. Written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, the show is full of witty, often genius conversations and monologues mixed of both modern language and classic poetry and is a testament to the beauty of the English language. The final monologue in the show is one of the single most powerful bits of theatre I have ever seen. By the time the speech ends with the line "Burn the f***ing house down", the likelihood is you are covered in goosebumps and moved to tears.
The acting in this show is a masterclass, from a diverse and incredibly inclusive cast of incredible women. Clare Perkins, Adelle Leonce and Saffron Coomber are outstanding as the three Emilia's with a special mention to Clare Perkins for her powerful final speech.
The show was filmed for archiving and was never meant to be seen publicly. With that in mind, the sound can at times be a struggle. It is still better to have some version of this released than none at all. Let's hope in the future it can return to the stage and get a proper filmed production deserving of this fantastic show.
Watching this show at home, I was incredibly moved by the powerful messages and incredible performances from all involved. This is a special show which I am glad to have finally seen in some form. I just wish I could have experienced this in the theatre as I expect that must have been truly remarkable and unforgettable.
To quote another historical show that has been brought up to date, "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story" - this is an important story that needs to be told, and thank God it now lives on for us all to experience, better our understanding and help shape a more equal future for all.
Emilia is available to stream now until November 24th, with a brilliant "Pay what you can" scheme in place meaning you can watch it from as little as £1.
Tickets available from https://www.emilialive.com/