Review: Emilia at Arts Centre Melbourne

Review by Lucy Holz


Commissioned in 2018 by Shakespeare’s Globe, Emilia follows the story of 17th Century poet and feminist Emilia Bassano. Throughout history she has been speculated to be William Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ from his sonnets and perhaps even the inspiration for the character of Emilia in Othello. Written by Morgan Lloyd Malcom, this feminist reimagining of Emilia’s untold story showcases the injustices of life as a woman in a pantomime style retelling.


The character of Emilia is played by three actors, following her from girlhood, to becoming a mother and finally a teacher. Thrown from one injustice to the next, Emilia watches as Shakespeare steals her words for his plays, reaping the benefits as she is just a woman and therefore legally unable to publish her poems.


In the first act of this production the performer playing Shakespeare suffers an onstage injury, causing a show stop for about 20 minutes. When the audience returns, we are greeted by the director Petra Kalive, who informs us how the show will proceed. Izabella Yena, a standby cover who was already onstage covering for another actor, steps swiftly into the role script in hand and takes us right back to where we left off.


Yena was already a standout in her portrayal of Lady Cordelia, and only further shows her prowess as she juggles several characters and costumes in act two. Jumping from young girl to self-assured man to actual ghost, Yena has us laughing, cringing and leaning forward in our seats as she reveals the final details of the true Emilia Bassano.


With a thirteen strong cast of non-male performers, this play relies heavily on drag and slapstick style comedy to portray the many male characters. Genevieve Picot is another standout in this regard, playing Lord Henry Carey with a truthful conviction. Her heart breaking portrayal of Judith the washerwoman is just as grounded, bringing realism to an otherwise heightened piece.


Costume by Zoë Rouse combines loosely Elizabethan style garb with everyday sneakers. Whenever a man is portrayed the actor dons elaborate facial hair and pantaloons while women wear velveteen gowns, establishing this society as a world of gender binaries.


Set by Emily Collett is minimalistic and simple, with curtains and one moving set of stairs providing actors with a framework for the constantly changing settings of the play. Lighting by Katie Sfetkidis is similarly simple, making use of the spacious stage with an effective design.


With melodrama, slapstick and highly pronounced messages, this play leaves nothing to the imagination. Lloyd Malcom replicates the Shakespearian style of a raucous chorus, audience interaction, music and narration, without the swift pacing or skilful intricacies of language. Never subtle, this play is an outlet for female rage without complexity.


Ultimately this is an ensemble piece, championing the performers as they fully commit to an often unwieldy script. Glowingly received by a generous audience, Emilia is a well-intentioned exploration of a male dominated history which says what everyone is thinking and nothing more.


Image Credit: Dylan Hornsby | Good Gravy Media