EMILIA – THE DARK LADY OF SHAKESPEARE’S SONNETS. Now playing at Arts Centre Melbourne.

Emilia Theatre Show Review 

By Jake Freeman

Now performing at The Playhouse at Arts Centre Melbourne is a feminist retelling of Emilia, inspired by the life and times of the 17th-century poet and writer Emilia Bassano. Born in Bishopsgate, London in 1569 to Royal Court musicians and of Moroccan and Jewish heritage, Emilia was a highly ambitious, “feisty” lady from an early age and for her time. Bassano had sought to be an independent woman and make a living as a professional poet and writer at a time when it was still highly unusual for an English woman to publish and earn a living. Up until that point, only a handful of British women had been professional poets. Emilia finally accomplished this by publishing a collection of poetry called Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews) in 1611. It was a ground-breaking piece of literature; it was viewed by many as one of the earliest. If not the first, feminist works published in England.

Most famously, she has often been seen as the inspiration for many of the characters of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, and in some cases, her first or last name or some variation of it is either a character or location name, such as Emilia in Othello and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. Generations of academics, writers, musicians, and poets have expressed views that Emilia was The Dark Lady, a woman described in some of Shakespeare’s most critically acclaimed sonnets (sonnets 127–152). Some have speculated that the two had been lovers. Others have speculated that Emilia was not only the inspiration for, but had written all of Shakespeare’s plays and had not received any credit for it as alluded to in the play. No evidence has been found to support this claim.  

In 2018, Bassano’s life story was made into a play, produced by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm in London, simply called Emilia. It is a “modern retelling mock history” theatre production, with a strong feminist message. Since it debuted it has already caused a stir with its audience and won a fistful of awards, including three Laurence Olivier Awards. 

“It’s Hamilton meets Shakespeare,” said Sonya Suares, actor, and co-producer of the play during an interview, describing it as “a fierce feminine trailblazer.” It even performed at the Shakespeare’s Globe, a modern reconstruction of the Globe Theatre. Ironically, during Shakespeare’s time, women could not perform in plays and thus were portrayed by men in female attire. It was somewhat amusing to witness the reverse of that in this all-female cast play, with a very diverse list of secondary players, some of whom were non-binary, people of colour and short stature. 

It was interesting to see what impact the show would have here in Australia, especially in this post #MeToo era and just months after the historic turning over of the Roe vs Wade case in the U.S.A. 

Audience members including celebrities such as Sammy J, Marina Prior, and Nadine Garner took to their seats at the intimate Playhouse Theatre on its opening night last Friday. 

Three actresses portray Emilia at various stages of her life beginning with Manali Datar as a young child to a teen in the Royal Court in the mid-1500s, Cessalee Stovall plays the middle-aged Emilia who tries to publish her poetry against the resistance of the many men in her life. Lisa Maza acts as both the eldest of the three Emilia’s and as the main narrator of the show who delivered a rousing and powerful monologue in the final scene. 

All three women portraying Emilia were brilliant and complimented each other. All had perfect stage presence and gave a moving performance in particular Manali Datar. 

The detail of having all three Emilia’s dressed in the same colour was performed well with having sometimes one or all three Emilia’s on stage together. The production was able to carry its story with minimal sets and props. The stage was a basic layout with some chairs on either side, a movable staircase with some props that created the illusion of a house or the royal court and finally several layers of curtains. 

While Emilia, will resonate most strongly within the feminist community, it is still witty, surprisingly entertaining, and enjoyable enough that there is no reason for it not to reach a wider audience. 

Emilia is directed by Petra Kalive and co-produced by Amanda LaBonté, Sophie Lampel, Darylin Ramondo & Sonya Suares.

Emilia is now playing for a limited season until 27 November 2022 at The Playhouse, which is located within Arts Centre Melbourne at 100 St Kilda Road, a short walk from Flinders Street Station.

There are two post-show Q&A sessions immediately following the shows on 17 and 24 November (both Thursdays). There’s also an Auslan-interpreted performance on Saturday 26 November.

The show’s runtime is 2 hours 30 minutes, including a 20-minute interval. It contains strong adult themes and some coarse language and is only suitable for mature audiences.

To buy tickets to the show, go to – www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2022/theatre/emilia