Emilia at Circomedia

Posted on: 2023-02-19

Our rating:

a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the 17th century through the eyes of the modern viewer

Making its debut on the Bristol stage, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s award-winning comedy about the life of 17th Century poet Emilia Bassano Lanier is a rousing, feminist celebration.

First commissioned by Shakespeare’s Globe in 2018, Emilia tells the story of a talented writer and passionate feminist, whose story has been, as have so many other talented women, overshadowed by her male contempories. Emilia, writing in 1611, became the first woman to have her poetry published in England. This is no small feat, but if you’ve ever heard her name mentioned before, it is likely not due to the merit of her own work, but instead because of her identity as a possible candidate for the ’Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Brought to life in Circomedia’s breath-taking St Pauls Church with a simple yet effective set, the cast for Emilia is made up entirely of female or non-binary actors. With many of them portraying both male and female characters, the result is a lot of humour and fun; as the male characters thrust their codpieces, twirl their fake moustaches and throw mini tantrums when things don’t go their way, Emilia’s sincerity is made all the more earnest.

The character of Emilia is split between actors at three different stages of her life; Gaia Ashwood brings us Emilia as a young woman trying to carve out her place in the world, perfectly embodying the naivety and sadness of youth.

Assa Kanouté channels Emilia as she comes into her own as a teacher, writer and activist, and with fiery resolution, challenges certain male contemporaries who have plagiarised her work. Kanouté’s performance is faultless, channelling Emilia’s rage and perseverance with heart-breaking delivery.

The mantle is finally passed to the eldest Emilia, Sum?h Ebelé, who has been narrating the tale with afterthought up until this point. Ebelé brings conviction and self-assurance to the role, incendiary and inspiring in her final speech.

If I were to have one criticism, it would be that at times the writing is pretty on the nose. The feminism sometimes feels a little too broad, a little too repetitive, a little too spelled-out. It feels a little clumsy and unnecessary to allude to 21st century feminist tropes (mansplaining, ‘taking up space’) alongside such a strong historical narrative about a forgotten feminist figure. We don’t need these buzzwords to be able to relate to, or empathise with her struggle.

Still, the play serves as a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the 17th century through the eyes of the modern viewer. Under the colourful skirts and corsets of the cast, doc-marten style boots bring weight and a contemporary twist to the costume. Bright, neon makeup and contemporary dance sporadically plotted throughout the play brings an edgy undertone that works well with the subject matter. Sally Cookson’s direction is strong and stylish.

All in all, Emilia is a play with superb acting by the BOVTS students, delightfully contemporary costume and rousing feminist energy. And whilst it’s not a laugh-out-loud comedy, it is, gladly, not at all a tragedy. And that is something to be celebrated. 

Click for more information about Bristol Old Vic Theatre School upcoming performances.

Article by:

Naomi Weeks

Naomi is the Marketing and Publicity Manager at b small publishing, a children's book publisher specialising in dynamic young fiction. In her spare time, she enjoys writing, life drawing and finding weird and wonderful events to go in and around Bristol.