More than 400 years ago, poet and speculated muse of Shakespeare, Emilia Bassano raised her voice. The world didn’t listen. Now, in an Australian production of the eponymous Olivier-award winning play, Emilia speaks a story of love, power and identity to Canberra audiences.
Manali Datar, Cessalee Stovall and Lisa Maza each take on the role of Emilia, leading a culturally diverse cast of 13 actors. In fact, Emilia marks the first time in our country’s theatrical history that a play of this scale has featured an all female and non-binary creative team, both behind and on stage.
“It shouldn’t be a novelty,” Heidi Arena who plays Shakespeare in Emilia said. “It should be the norm. That is what the play is saying. I feel like we are a part of something quite rare. I have never been a part of something like this.
“It isn’t just a historical drama, it’s a play that delves into all sorts of things: history, gender, politics and power. Things that still affect us today. It is our role as actors and creatives to show all of that rather than be accurate to Shakespeare and his time, or the audience’s idea of it.”
While the character of Shakespeare acts as the play’s fulcrum, it is the stories of women, in particular women of colour, that are its true centre. Side-splittingly funny and overwhelmingly tragic, these threads pull together to encourage the audience to question their own experience and the world they occupy.
“If it was done too earnestly, you wouldn’t be able to absorb it all,” Heidi said. “You would feel like you were being told off or being taught a lesson. But I think you learn when there is light and shade. When things are so funny you could cry. It is that mix that makes this play so powerful and so palatable.”
For this is the strength of Emilia. The way playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm has been able to skillfully combine biting humour with white hot fury to reflect on the silencing of women throughout history while drawing parallels to the courage of those speaking out today.
“I wish I could say things have changed for the better since then,” Malcolm said. “But it honestly feels like things have been getting even worse. So perhaps we need this show, and others like it, even more.”
Since being commissioned by Shakespeare’s Globe in the midst of the Me Too movement, Malcolm said the play had “opened up important conversations about whose stories we tell and how we tell them”.
Questioning classic texts and narratives comes naturally to the women behind Essential Theatre, Amanda LaBonté and Sophie Lampel, the company responsible for staging this production.
Perhaps best known for staging fresh reimaginings of Shakespeare among Australian vineyards, the pair first came across Emilia when they heard the play’s final speech on a podcast.
“We were immediately inspired and invested so we contacted the playwright, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, within 24 hours,” Amanda said.
“We had been looking for that special something to mark the milestone of our 20th anniversary and couldn’t believe how beautifully this play aligned with us; being a female-led company and having spent the last 20 years exploring Shakespeare through a female lens. We knew we had to present this in Australia.”
Just like the audience at Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre, you won’t be able to remain passive while watching this play. You will feel compelled to participate, to cry out, to groan, to cry. As Emilia says: “Take the fire as your own… we want you to, we need you to.”