I went to Emilia the play for all the wrong reasons. I had seen the posters a few times on the tube, and the costumes on the three women reminded me of the dresses that the Schuyler sisters wear in Hamilton the musical. I loved Hamilton, and the reason I wanted to go to Emilia is in my head it would be similar to Hamilton – based on nothing at all other than the costumes in a poster. The two plays take place in entirely different countries and time periods, Emilia isn’t even a musical. But I am glad that I went to see it, because what I experienced in those couple of hours in Vaudeville theatre was incendiary.
Emilia is the story of the onetime muse of William Shakespeare, the first English woman to publish her own book of poems. Played by three actresses the play takes you through Emilia’s life and how the lack of rights for women stifled her voice and changes how we see the ‘worlds greatest playwright’. The play is a feminist rally cry – it will be seriously confrontational for anyone who does not agree with the concept of equality.
My words are in no way going to do this play justice. Not just because I am not a theatre writer, but also because I don’t think I have fully processed the impact it has had on me. I have actually booked tickets to go again in a couple of weeks, because I know how important the experience of this play is to me.
I don’t mean to make it sound like Emilia is a boring lecture on how important female agency is – this play is really funny as well. It is full of a combination of snide in jokes and bawdy Shakespearean slapstick, but even in the jokes I felt a sense of revolution. I don’t think I have ever been in a room and heard so many people laughing at the same feminist joke, there is a level of acceptance in casual laughter that I never expected.
The final act of the play is where it turns from a play into a ‘set fire to the world’ cry for action. How is it that so many of the issues that Emilia was facing when London was full of Elizabethan charm are still being faced today? I left feeling like I could take on the world, that the turning over of inequality was possible and heartbroken that so many women throughout history have had their voices silenced and derided.
Emilia the play felt elicit. Like something that should be underground and only talked about in hushed coded voices. I have never seen something so blatantly feminist, with not an inch of pandering, on the stage – or actually anywhere in public. The way that it felt so radical, so radical to say that a woman should own her own voice, that she should not be raped or murdered, that she should have equal rights and chances – made me realise quite how far we have to go in the conversation.
Normally when I leave a theatre I am thinking about if I liked the play or not. I am distracted by my back being in knots from the uncomfortable chairs, worried about if the tube will be running or pissed that I thought spending £4 on a tiny ice-cream at half time was a good idea. But with Emilia it almost didn’t matter if the play was good or not (I mean, it was amazing) the power of it was unquestionable. I left feeling like action and change was possible and within my grasp. Which in today’s climate is not a feeling I thought I would feel any time soon.