Many people know of the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, but most would struggle to tell you anything about the real woman some have speculated she was. For the record, as well as being put forward as the Bard’s muse (and possibly his lover), Emilia Bassano was England’s first published female poet, an educator, and a proto-feminist and socialist.
Now Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s new play, Emilia, fills in some of the gaps. Following a short run at Shakespeare’s Globe last summer it has transferred to the West End — where, it seems, women-centred stories are having a moment. With an all-female cast (they also play some male roles) and creative team, as well as four female producers, Emilia joins a strong list of shows about women, including musicals 9 to 5, Waitress and Tina.
I meet the three actresses who play Bassano, each for about a third of her life — Saffron Coomber (Emilia 1), Adelle Leonce (Emilia 2) and Clare Perkins (who is returning to the role of Emilia 3). Do they like the idea of “sharing” a role? Perkins, 52, laughs and says: “At first I thought, no! They do that at drama college because they want to give everybody a chance to perform, but I used to hate it.
“Obviously this is not that — it’s three stages of Emilia’s life. I start and end the play, and in between I get to see these younger versions of myself, as it were, and the more you do it the more light and shade you see, and that can only help my performance.”
Leonce, 27, adds: “For me it’s like you’re running a race and you’re already winning and someone passes you the baton. You’re fuelled by what’s come before and that energy transfers to the next person. The only problem is you have to mark the journey of that person from page one, rather than page 36 [where Emilia 2 begins] because otherwise you end up with three mini-plays of Emilia. You have to plan the arc of your journey, while being aware of her overall journey in the play.”
Coomber, 24 — whose Emilia ages from seven to 28 — echoes the thought. “It’s important for me to remember in my chunk that she’s still learning, she’s not fully formed yet. As much as you want her to be everything that’s fabulous about being a woman, she has to have this trajectory. She mustn’t be too knowing.
“It’s a symbiotic process and I constantly learn from Adelle or Clare. I see Clare make a gesture, or hear Adelle’s emphasis on a line and think, ‘Where did this fire begin in Emilia, what sparked that thought or feeling?’ and that feeds into how I approach my role. And as Morgan said in rehearsal, this is not just Emilia’s story, it’s every woman’s story, it’s a shared experience.”
The play, despite its rich humour, laugh-out-loud moments and delightfully anachronistic lines, has serious points to make — about racism, sexism and misogyny. Bassano lived from 1569 to 1645 and her father was a Venetian musician at the court of Elizabeth I. Her volume Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, published in 1611, was a groundbreaker: the first book of original poetry published by a woman in England.
In Emilia we see her lead a tempestuous life full of palace intrigue, sexual adventure (at 18 she became the 61-year-old Lord Chamberlain’s mistress) and political scandal. But she seethes with anger at the limitations placed on women, her lowly position at court and the perception of her skin colour.
I ask the three actresses, all women of colour, about how the play resonates for them. “As women we realise that life is unequal and that men are paid more than women, and so on,” says Perkins. “But if men write the history — and mostly white men at that — it becomes your history, however unreal it is. Now, though, as we discover these stories of women, of people of colour, the more empowered we become and we ask ourselves what other stories have we not been told. And Emilia’s story is part of that; as she says in the play, ‘We are only as powerful as the stories we tell.’ The story of women, and black people, has been fake news for centuries.”
Coomber says: “I think 10 years ago, when I was a teenager, if you had told me about this play — in the West End, all women, and the leads all mixed heritage, about a historical figure who has almost been written out of history — I would not have believed you. There has definitely been a shift recently and people are now questioning what they have been taught and are exploring the facts for themselves.”
Leonce adds: “I used to say to my agent, as a mixed-race actress I’ll never go up for period stuff and get to wear pretty dresses. It seems something simple, even silly, to say, but to wear a corset in this role, to be physically drawn in by it, actually gives me so much power.”
Lloyd Malcolm has told how she wrote Emilia in 2017 when the Time’s Up/#MeToo movements were gaining traction: “The more I learned Emilia’s story the more the relevance of it and the modern parallels became clear. The timing felt so right.”
It has been described as the first #MeToo play, and Leonce says: “Of course it’s of the #MeToo age, that’s undeniable. But as an actor you don’t come into a project thinking that — we’re just humans in the moment. But the words, while being rooted in the past, do feel so much of the present.”
Perkins, 52, is not entirely convinced. “It started with Hollywood actresses so of course we’re aware of it, but I don’t know that a lot of women in my life are that bothered. I’m not putting the movement down but I’m not sure the hashtag speaks to them. I will admit it has opened up the conversation — but I’m not sure I’d go and see a play described like that.”
“I would!” rejoins Coomber. “I’m not on Twitter but for my generation hashtags are a real thing and people are finding their voice through whichever medium they can. What is important is that people have a platform to speak, and this play is part of that.”
She adds: “The #MeToo movement is not about every man, but it is every woman’s experience, and so this play speaks to that. I remember reading the script for the first time and I was like, I feel her. I so wanted to give my voice for my ancestors, for everyone who has come before me, for all the forgotten stories. And that’s the #MeToo element in this — we have all suffered this in one way or another.”
Emilia ends with an impassioned feminist call to arms in a speech performed by Perkins, which electrified the Globe each time. “I looked out into the audience and I could see them in tears or shouting in agreement. I asked myself why we got that reaction and I think it’s because it’s the truth, an emotional truth that people — men and women — recognise.”
“The play really opens up the conversations we have to have,” agrees Leonce. “I can’t quite articulate the effect it had on me, but I think Emilia will speak to something deep inside the audience.”
Emilia is at the Vaudeville Theatre, WC2, until June 15.