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What if Shakespeare had actually ripped off a young black woman all along? Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s ne

William Shakespeare: often referred to as the greatest playwright in British history. His elegant and inspiring verses have echoed down the canon for generations. Now, imagine if old Willy’s work was not entirely his own. What if behind this literary giant existed a young black woman, struggling to launch her own writing career?

In this speculative history play, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm explores the life of Emilia Lanier née Bassano (1569-1645). She was the daughter of an Italian court musician, and one of the first women to ever publish poetry in England. Of possible North African descent, she is rumoured to be the mysterious ‘Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Lloyd Malcolm takes the possibility of their meeting and runs with it. This is not a world where the woman is the silent muse and the man is the bard. Rather, in this patriarchal society, Emilia is a plagiarised co-author and Shakespeare is an arrogant mansplainer. It is hence fitting that she should have been dubbed the ‘Dark Lady’, as Emilia acts as the feminist dark horse of the play. Emilia navigates through the rocky terrain of court life, as the sexist limitations of her society threaten to erode her dreams of becoming a female writer in the Early Modern period.

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We follow Emilia through three stages of life, each played by a different actress, all of whom impressively capture the character’s incendiary passion. Young Emilia (Saffron Coomber) is boisterous, ambitious and independent – the complete antithesis to what is expected of young women beginning their courtship. Rather than aspire to marriage, she hungers for professional success in the literary sphere. She becomes Lord Chamberlain’s mistress to access an elite writing circle, and marries Alphonso Lanier to conceal an illegitimate pregnancy. Somewhere in this muddle, she begins an affair with ‘Will’ Shakespeare, whose narcissism is humorously conveyed through Charity Wakefield’s confident swagger. As Emilia struggles against confining gender roles, Will jots down her emotional outbursts and regurgitates these speeches in his plays. We then transition to adult Emilia (Adelle Leonce). Grief-stricken, weary and insane with resentment, she rages over Will’s easy publication and shameless plagiarism. Emilia channels her anger into action by becoming a tutor and forming a secret women’s writing club. Elderly Emilia (Clare Perkins) continues to educate women, creating pamphlets, circulating empowering poetry for the wives of court, and publishing a subversive religious text.

This all-female cast is refreshingly diverse, and together they perform with undeniable energy. Nicole Charles’ animated direction ensures continuous crowd interaction, making it impossible for you to simply be a passive observer. You might have a rose passed to you, or dirty knickers thrown at you. A huffy Shakespeare may even stomp past shouting ‘SHIT!’ (ironic, given that these were my exact sentiments when trying to decipher his veiled language at GCSE).

Morgan cleverly weaves modern experiences of racist micro-aggressions into the narrative. One character asks Emilia where she is from. When she replies with “London”, they persist with, “No, where are you FROM?” Such ignorance towards first and second generation Afro-Caribbean immigrants resonants in a post-Brexit Britain which is intolerant to racial difference. Throughout the play, white characters also continuously marvel over Emilia’s beauty, fetishising and exploiting her seemingly ‘exotic’ appearance. This problematic obsession with mixed-race individuals continues today, making the play’s comments on race particularly relatable in the contemporary moment.

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Less subtle is the feminist agenda of this play. Emilia passionately argues for equal opportunities for men and women, focusing on the need for female expression. While the battle to write and publish has already been won, there is certainly a case for this in the 21st century – our work is far from done. Emilia’s general pleas for the amplification of women’s voices remains poignant against the backdrop of the #Metoo movement, and in a time where women remain underrepresented in the media.

However, the play’s relentless nods to its fourth-wave audience risk reducing Emilia to a mere mouthpiece for contemporary feminism. The play’s anachronistic tendencies threaten to endow her with too much knowledge, crafting too perfect of a character to be believable. Towards the end of the play, in particular, four waves of feminism seem shoe-horned in. As the play draws to a close, we hastily encounter sexual assault, domestic abuse, censorship and burning at the stake. By apparently including all instances of female persecution, it presents as a type of sexism tick-box checklist, and inevitably neglects to explore any of these issues in very much depth.

Overall, the creatively reimagined perspective of ‘Emilia’ manages to stimulate audiences with its contagious vibrancy, though sometimes at the risk of character authenticity.

Unfortunately Emilia has ended two weeks early. However, a copy of the play can still be purchased here.

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