The most diverse cast ever to tread a West End Stage? Kate Lovell goes to see the revolutionary Emilia at the Vaudeville Theatre.
“We are only as powerful as the stories we tell. We have not always been able to tell them. We are Emilia. Time to listen.” These lines plunge us into the story of Emilia and make hairs stand on end with their truth and importance. Emilia is a play that is vibrant and urgent on many levels: the cast, the story, the writing, the creative team.
The play began life at Shakespeare’s Globe, commissioned as part of new artistic director Michelle Terry’s opening season, written by playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. So well received, and so popular, its short run at the Globe was not enough life for a play that has as much to say as Emilia.
Immediately striking is the diversity of the cast onstage: an all-female cast, women of colour and disabled actors, plus-size women and older women, all taking on meaty roles. The diversity speaks volumes in conjunction with a text that is telling the story of the first female published poet, whose voice has been buried and unheard for so long. It is a deliberate, provocative choice to place on a West End stage a large cast of women from diverse backgrounds whose voices have been oppressed for as long and longer than Emilia Bassano’s has.
The cast is absolutely an ensemble: no one actress takes a leading role. Lloyd Malcolm has cleverly written the title role of Emilia to be played by three actresses, removing the presence of a star performer. The lack of a leading role marries perfectly with the message: although the play ostensibly tells the story of one woman from history, in actuality, it represents the stories of all women and echoes throughout history. The story is told with a boldness that feels revolutionary. The actresses may wear Elizabethan dress, but the show is completely contemporary.
Sophie Stone and Nadia Albina, both D/deaf and disabled actors, are part of this ensemble cast and an incredible moment for the disability arts world is the fact of their impairments is incorporated yet irrelevant. Their narratives within the play are not ‘about’ being disabled, but neither is it masked; Stone plays both speaking and signing roles. The lack of a specific ‘disabled narrative’ is incredibly rare within productions that sit outside of the disability arts world, and unheard of in a West End show. A revolutionary moment: disabled actors in the West End solely because they are superb performers.
The play itself is feminist with a capital F. It’s a show that immediately encourages the audience to vocalise its feelings and the energy in the auditorium is palpable. This is a West End experience like no other, with commercialism and glitz swept aside by the witty, hilarious and ferocious text performed by an incredible cast whose performances are so equally mesmerising that no one actor stands out, for all the best reasons. The final speech of the show is a call to arms for women across the ages, across classes, disability, race, and is delivered with such emotional ferocity that the audience can’t help but whoop and holler their approval. All the hype is true. Emilia is unmissable.