We know next to nothing of the “Dark Lady of the Sonnets” — nothing beyond what Shakespeare tells us in 26 stanzas of overblown verse. Her eyes were nothing like the sun, of course – “raven black,” so he claims – and her lips were either paler than coral, as in Sonnet 130, or else the “scarlet ornaments” of No. 142. Shakespeare seems somewhat confused: “I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,” he writes, “who art as black as hell, as dark as night.” It’s fair to say the sonnets aren’t reliable source material. The “Dark Lady” is a product of Shakespeare in lust.
Who was she? Who knows? Scholars have sought answers ever since the Victorian era. Some say Mary Fitton, a maid of honor to Queen Elizabeth I; others, a brothel owner known as Black Luce. Author Aubrey Burl lined up eight possible candidates before plumping for one Mrs. Florio, wife of an Italian lexicographer named John, but the best guess tends to be Emilia Lanier, née Bassano, a gentlewoman, a mother and a published poet, who started her own school. We don’t know a great deal about her, either: one embittered diarist calls her a whore and a harlot.
In “Emilia,” playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm writes into that blank space. She takes those few fragments of Bassano’s life and concocts a rollicking biography for an all-female cast: a mock history play. It elevates Emilia to the epitome of feminist fire and fury so that, “stifled, ignored, abused” all her life, she rages against the misogynist machine.
As a young woman, embodied by Saffron Coomber, she thumbs her nose at Elizabethan courtship rituals and launches witty zingers at lascivious male suitors — each played, preening and proud, by a woman in breeches and false facial hair. When Charity Wakefield’s sensitive shagger, Will Shakespeare, sniffs around her, Emilia matches him flirt for flirt and then, when he lifts her words into his writing (Emilia in “Othello” might be named after her), Adelle Leonce has her storm the Globe stage. Saved from suicide by a collective of washerwomen, she starts schooling them in return and smuggling subversive feminist literature beneath the censor’s gaze. So by the time Clare Perkins summons up a final speech so furiously righteous in its rebuttal of the patriarchal pressures she’s endured that it seems to shake the theatre’s roof, Emilia Bassano’s become a feminist hero for our times.
For better or worse, that’s the point. Better, because it generates a whole lot of heat in the here and now and, just as Shakespeare’s history plays addressed the issues of his day, Lloyd Malcolm repurposes an Elizabethan woman’s life to address the problems that persist today. Her play is a cocktail of speculation and spirit and, if she gives her protagonist the benefit of four centuries and four waves of feminist theory, that is itself an embattled act. If history has all but written Emilia Bassano out, Lloyd Malcolm’s perfectly entitled to write her back in — but better and badder, with more bras to burn.
However, that airbrushing also undermines the whole. Lloyd Malcolm so clearly co-opts history to her own ends that it becomes easier to brush off her point. Her Emilia is flawless, too good to be true; the sum total of her character defects being a lack of resolve when she wades into the Thames and an instant of forgetting her privilege when addressing working-class women. The play doesn’t merely rewrite history, it renders it black and white. Joanna Scotcher’s costumes cast the world in two: patriarchal reds and cool sisterly blues.
If it puts women on a pedestal, “Emilia” is at its sharpest when poking fun at men. Its diverse, all-female cast drag up and deliver pastiche after pastiche, all the funnier when emasculated by doublet and hose. Sophie Stone surveys the dance floor like the lord of all lads and Tanika Yearwood smooths her eyebrows and swaggers like a self-crowned Tinder king. From the bumptious whinnying of Amanda Wilkin’s wet fish to the jowly pomposity of Jackie Clune’s outraged husband, the more accurate the impersonation, the more accusatory they become, sharply observed from the other side of the female gaze.
Wakefield’s Shakespeare is best of all: a primped and priggish literary lothario, forever staring off into the middle-distance as if impatient for the invention of photography. It’s a deft balancing act: charm personified, caring too, but carried on a wave of unchecked male privilege and pride. She is a fine foil to the three ardent Emilias: Coomber’s self-assured young sceptic, Leonce’s put-upon troubled soul and Perkins’s revenant burning with righteousness. Emilia restores and reclaims a forgotten female voice but, more than that, it threatens a wrecking ball if it happens again. Perkins’ last speech is seismic, a proper call to arms: “If they try to burn you,” she warns, “you can burn the whole f—- house down.”