Emilia – Arts Centre Melbourne (VIC)

Written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. Directed by Petra Kalive.

Reviewed by Martha ‘M.J’ Latham

Rating: 5 out of 5.

10 – 27 November 2022 | Playhouse
$49 – $78
Tickets: https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2022/theatre/emilia

Photos: Dylan Hornsby | Good Gravy Media

Emilia is a remarkable work, of which Australia has been desperately in need of. To see so many diverse bodies, diverse stories and diverse histories on a stage like the Arts Centre Melbourne seemed completely unbelievable. Yet here Emilia stands, played by Manali Datar, Cessalee Stovall and Lisa Maza. The play, like the woman herself, is a survivor. An anomaly that exists outside the norm and within it all at the same time.

Historically, Emilia Lannier (neé Bassano) was a historical poet. The first woman in English history to assert herself as a professional poet in fact. Whilst undoubtedly many women were writing poetry, Emilia is a suitable choice for the theme of the play, which is undoubtedly about the feminist struggle.

The play takes us into the world of revisionist history, suggesting that Shakespeare (who is also portrayed as Emilia’s lover) was in fact lifting Emilia’s writings and using them in his plays. This theory seems to have existed for a while, with a litany of evidence both for and against. The play uses this theory to explore the ways that women have historically been ignored, misrepresented and actively forgotten.

Director Petra Kalive is at her best in this work. Unshackled from MTC fingers, she soars with unique and dynamic character moments. A focus on the grand, the melodramatic and the vaudevillian draws out the humour from even the darker moments of the play. Our introduction to the character of Shakespeare, for example, is done with actress Heidi Arena sneaking on stage, and hiding behind a series of curtains with all the grace of a rhino. It’s a fantastic intro to a well-known figure that sets the stage for Shakespeare’s later twist to the antagonist of the play.

Emily Collett’s set was beautiful. Long drapes that are slowly pulled away as we learn more and more about our titular Emilia. Eventually the curtains opened to a large and mostly empty stage space, with only a staircase in the center. Design teachers will say not to use stairs on stage, because all the actors can do is go up and down; many scenes in Emilia became just this. Kalive does her best to wrangle with this, drawing out some beautiful moments such as Shakespeare standing above his fans and reading his/Emilia’s poetry. Some of the more bland staging is made tolerable by Zoë Rouse beautiful costumes, which match the overall style.

The play [explores] the ways that women have historically been ignored, misrepresented and actively forgotten.

The work can sometimes be a little trite. Bridgerton style hip hop dance moments that are nowhere near as tight or well choreographed as the show they are intending to reference. But all of this peels away to brilliant writing and impeccable performances. Inherently, the work is about performance. The performance of women, POC, queers and other marginalised communities. 

Eventually it seems Emilia finds herself when she meets a community, the worker women of London, who don’t have to perform. They act as they are. For all the benefits that class and royalty offered Emilia, they also took from her. Many people still feel that way today. Whether it’s trans workers fighting for genderless staff bathrooms or POC working in equity teams in large organisations, all of us continue these performances in search of power. 

Is Emilia historical? Maybe. But so was Hamilton, and Emilia actually has something worthwhile to say.

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Emilia 1 Manali Datar
Emilia 2 Cessalee Stovall
Emilia 3 Lisa Maza
William Shakespeare / Man 2 Heidi Arena
Lady Margaret Clifford / Midwife / Man 1 Emma J Hawkins
Lord Alphonso Lanier / Lord Collins / Emilia (Othello) and others Catherine Glavicic
Margaret Johnson / Mary Sidney / Hester Carita Farrer Spencer
Judith / Priest / Lord Henry Carey Genevieve Picot
Lady Cordelia / Lady Anne and others Jing-Xuan Chan
Susan Bertie The Countess of Kent / Mary Bob Amanda LaBonté
Lady Katherine / Desdemona (Othello) Sonya Suares
Lord Thomas Howard / Dave / Flora Sophie Lampel
Eve / Lady Helena Sarah Fitzgerald
Stand by Covers NazAree Dickerson, Kuda Mapeza & Izabella Yena

Director Petra Kalive
Movement Director Xanthe Beesley
Movement Associate Jennifer Ma
Set designer Emily Collett
Costume designer Zoë Rouse
Composer / Sound Designer Emah Fox and Sharyn Brand
Lighting Designer Katie Sfetkidis
Associate Lighting Designer Harrie Hogan
Production Manager Rockie Stone
Stage Manager Olivia Walker
Deputy Stage Manager Rain Iyahen
Assistant Stage Manager Amy Smith
Co-Producers Amanda LaBonté, Sophie Lampel, Darylin Ramondo & Sonya Suares
Associate Producer Trish Carlon

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