DARK LADY DEMANDING LIMELIGHT
The Globe has had some tremendous new-writing about history, for which it is nicely suited. Remember Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn and Dr Scroggy’s War, or Jessica Swayle’s fine Nell Gwyn and Bluestockings. This latest one, commissioned by Michelle Terry from Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, is not in that class. Which is a great pity, because the theme is intriguing and useful: the too-long-tolerated invisibility of women as writers and thinkers.
It deals with Emilia Bassano Lanier (thought by some to be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of the sonnets, unless that was a bloke, as others opine). What we know of her is scarce: daughter of a Italian court musician, mistress and protegée of a Lord Chamberlain and later married for convenience, she published a religious text aimed at women – Salve Deus Rex Iudaeorum – with strong and laudable attitudes to her sex. She may conceivably have met Shakespeare. The astrologer Simon Forman was rude about her. And that’s about it.
But the author, and director Nicole Charles, regard this lack of facts as freeing and make the most of it. Their Emilia is played by three women, Leah Harvey, Clare Perkins and Vinette Robinson, with Perkins a declamatory, narrating old-woman version and the others as younger selves. Their Emilia speaks her mind from childhood onwards, defies the ludicrously caricatured capering men of the court to their faces, as she does the more conventional, crinolined court ladies. She meets the young Shakespeare (a spirited Charity Wakefield), becomes his lover and tells him about women. He offers to ‘pour you into my work and immortalize your soul” and she snarls “I don ’t want your platform, I want mine”. She utters lines like “ I cannot heave my heart into my mouth” which he promptly nicks, so she gets furious. When his Emilia-and-Desdemona scene is on stage she rampages amid the groundlings shouting for her rights of authorhood. She berates him when he tries to “mansplain” the craft of writing (hoots and cheers from a very ‘woke’ audience at all these points).
She befriends the poor washerwomen and prostitutes of Bankside after they rescue her from drowning (in a still very clean bra-slip) and decides to educate them. She runs a risk of being burnt at a witch, and one friend is. She finally gets her pamphlets about women’s equality published by disguising them as religious works.
The play creaks beneath its burden of feminist ideology , underlined in the programme by Shami Chakrabarti and an excitable essay by Deborah Frances-White, who feels familiar enough with the eluxive historical Emilia to call her “a poet, a class warrior and champion of women – but she knew how to party..shagged loads of people”) . And as if the feminist line was not enough, as the three Emilias are women of colour we get another theme of the plight of immigrants. The heroine embraces modern victimhood-identification language and complains about “not belonging” due to being Italian by ancestry. She demands to be judged by virtues not inheritance, and mourns over an exotic seed-pod on the riverbank which will never grow in “a land unforgiving”. Though in fact Elizabethan London was more than open – to Europeans like her at least – and awash with active and successful immigrants . The paranoia is underlined as Lady Katherine Howard tells her that her sort take jobs from English workers. Clunking? Very.
It’s an undercooked, issue-driven play. The Emilias in particular are fine performers, but mainly given only shouty rants as lines; the language is banal and plodding, veering between brief archaisms like “I care not” and Blackadderish slang and “That’s a bit weird innit?”. Thus whenever the odd real line from Shakespeare crops up, it is like an unexpected orchid in an arid lawn. Everyone is encouraged to caper cartoonishly, a la Horrible histories. There is little light and shade, no sense of real interaction with men except once with Shakespeare, and just whenever you start to identify with the two younger Emilias, the older one powers in to interrupt with another diatribe. Concluding, in the final moments, with a ranting paean to all female anger and hostility towards men responsible for our ongoing slavery. Her final injunction is “burn the whole fucking house down!”.
Look, I wanted to like it. I wanted it to be good, embrace some subtlety, open doors on the past. It is perfectly true that women have been sidelined and silenced over centuries, and I liked stage-Emilia’s view (in one of the few good lines) that to succeed we have needed to be “tricksters, shape-shifters, upstream swimmers” . But to my real dismay, as the evening went on all shouty and furious and improbable, despite the first-night laughs and acclamations I felt less and less sympathetic towards the cause.
to 1 Sept