What do we know of Emilia Bassano? That she lived from 1569-1645, was the daughter of an Italian court musician, a published poet, a mother, a teacher and a feminist avant la lettre. But precisely because the known facts are so few, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm is free to invent and, in a play that rouses its audience to a pitch of fervour, turns her into a symbol of women down the ages who have struggled to make their voices heard.
Lloyd Malcolm paints a convincing picture of an Emilia who is wild and boisterous at home, rejects the stately courtship games played in aristocratic circles and burns with a passion to write. The play’s most contentious assertion, however, is that she was Shakespeare’s lover, the inspiration for the dark lady of the sonnets and, as a fellow poet, someone whose words the bard freely borrowed.
Given that Emilia was for five years the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, it is not impossible that she and Shakespeare met. But although the evidence of their association is based on an unproven claim by AL Rowse, it allows Lloyd Malcolm to turn Emilia into a living symbol of exploited women, and to show her interrupting a performance of Othello where even her name has been lifted.
The great virtue of Lloyd Malcolm’s speculative history lies in its passion and anger: it ends with a blazing address to the audience that is virtually a call to arms. It is throughout, however, a highly theatrical piece vividly directed by Nicole Charles and played by a diverse all-female cast.
Leah Harvey, Vinette Robinson and Clare Perkins share the role of Emilia and eloquently express her rebelliousness, rage, wit and hunger for literary recognition. Charity Wakefield endows Shakespeare with an arrogance that allows him to say of the Globe, even after his death, “this is my gaff”; Carolyn Pickles turns Lord Henry Carey, Emilia’s early lover, into a plausible roué; and Amanda Wilkin captures exactly the semi-detached nature of her husband, Alphonso Lanier.
Lloyd Malcolm’s play is often hortatory in tone but, in rescuing Emilia from the shades, it gives her dramatic life and polemical potency.