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FringeReview UK 2018

Low Down

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm know for portraying seething intimacy (for instance, The Wasp from 2015 writes of Emilia Bassano, known for apossible connection with Shakespeare Emilia is in this short run directed by Nicole Charles. Joanna Scotcher’s set is one of the neatest seen at the Globe. Bill Barclay’s score floats Renaissance sackbuts recorders and shawms out of heavy metal drumming. Till September 1st.


In a play of three Emilias it might be churlish to want another. Yet so good is Morgan Lloyd Malcolm at portraying seething intimacy (for instance, The Wasp from 2015), and so much of Emilia Bassano’s life (here given a brief chronology) unexplored, a winter Wanamaker drama might complement this glorious late summer one; which effectively leaves off with the publication of her one book in 1611. There’s thirty-four turbulent years to chronicle.

After Shakespeare? It’s Bassano’s connection with the dramatist (first posited by historian A L Rowse) that rescues her from oblivion, but as a rare published woman poet of the early modern period, should it be? Malcolm dismantles this though confining her character to comparative youth cramps her message. Nevertheless there’s so much Emilia to get through.


For glorious Emilia is in this all-too-short run directed with terrific panache by Nicole Charles. Its zest is contained too with great clarity, like the play easy to overlook in the riotous heights this work reaches and the delirious effect it has on the audience.


Bill Barclay’s score floats Renaissance sackbuts recorders and shawms out of heavy metal drumming; and Joanna Scotcher’s set is one of the neatest seen at the Globe. The stage is a library where stacks of red and blue volumes with a ladder scale behind the action. In the gallery a literal wooden O is partially hollowed allowing a circuit of contained books to dream suspended like an up-ended red ruff.


As for real ruffs, there’s a riot of whaleboned dresses to start, pale greens and blues, russets for trouser roles and increasingly a kind of uniform Prussian and cerulean blue, as Emilia moves from court to shoreline. There’s some shocking jokes about those aliens born south of the river too.


But it’s those books more than anything that women crave in Emilia, and its diverse all-female cast repeatedly plucks patterns of learning from finishing school to what might almost be an all-woman scene out of Friel’s Translations – and for the same rationale. It’s one of the few facts we know of Malcolm’s subject.


Bassano (1569-1645) daughter of an immigrant court musician, was left fatherless at seven and by the time her mother died was at eighteen mistress to the sixty-one-year-old son of the Other Boleyn Girl and Henry VIII. This is Lord Henry Carey (Carolyn Pickles, played up like comical lothario Leslie Phillips). Not before her £100 dowry bought her an education with Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent (a watchful Jenni Maitland). Malcolm adds characters who re-emerge throughout the work.


She divides Emilia too. Emilia 3 narrator Clare Perkins stitches all together with terrific authority coming in with a peroration at the start and finish, commenting on her earlier self. Leah Harvey’s innocence-to-experienced Emilia 1 has much to do in Act One and thereafter, resonant with outrage and discovery of nearly everything. Emilia 2’s Vinette Robinson traverses sad experience up to the climactic publication: a shadowed, sober yet rallying voice, able to inspire women hungry for knowledge outside the domain of men.


At the outset there’s initially scornful Lady Katherine Howard as she becomes, Nadia Albina diamond-scratchy in a waspish role (Malcolm isn’t above using a wasp trope as a knowing wink). Albina’s character makes the longest journey. She’s the one who introduces another great theme: otherness, for Bassano isn’t just Italian but possibly of North African and Jewish descent. Every seeming Brexit trope is spat out by Albina, and in case it seems anachronistic, there’s 147 lines of Shakespeare in Sir Thomas More that underline how huge a theme this was for the period. Malcolm’s right to stuff this down our throats.


Sarah Seggari takes daffy Lady Cordelia later returning as one of Emilia’s school, and Sophie Russell’s Lady Helena complete a fantastical trio of Elizabethan rigged dresses, gorgeous pale greens and blues. And there’s a troupe of muses galleried above, where some of the company assemble in white shifts as the Muses portrayed in Bassano’s volume.


This template, the survival through a series of women patrons and education-starved women is the drumming backbeat – shawms and recorders are fluted out by through incidence of men. Malcolm underlines this real network of women patrons with a density not previously seen, and her quieter point isn’t less loud than the core action. Anna Andreson’s sexually interested Lady Mary Sidney is enormous fun though makes serious points, and Sophie Stone’s Lady Margret Clifford has to traverse many years and a crack of voice as Emilia’s most faithful supporter, together with increasingly confident daughter Anne (Shiloh Coke) who seizes her chance late on.


After five years when Emilia falls pregnant Carey marries her off to a distant musical cousin Alphonso who has identity issues of his own (Amanda Wilkin’s excellent fop). Clearly a codpiece is missing. Enter Charity Wakefield’s Shakespeare with pragmatic charm and a propensity to beautify himself with Emilia’s feathers.


Though the comedic start seems a little slow to start the setting-out’s justified later on. But the intensity of interaction really shifts when Wakefield and Harvey lock words and inkhorns. Malcolm’s dialogue and pace quicken here and something of the wasp returns. It’s extremely welcome. Act One climaxes when playgoing Emilia discovers Shakespeare’s lifted whole chunks of their conversation onto Othello’s undressing-scene between Desdemona and Emilia without crediting her. Albina and Wilkin produce an effective contrast to that other Othello currently playing here – part of the joke. Imagine what Harvey does next.


Shakespeare trumps Emilia with grabbing the means of production, since ideas are nothing, it’s publishing them that counts. In their last meeting (in 1645!) he reminds her they’re at the Globe and ‘this is my gaff’. By then the pulled-down Globe was as platonic as he is, so no matter.


Malcolm’s studded Emilia with Globe-audience-friendly jokes and most would transfer. Her language occasionally veers into loud anachronisms (‘she’s mental!’ jeers a drunk) which it probably doesn’t need, but there’s no denying their zest particularly in the darkening Act Two. Malcolm also has a drunk label Robinson a ‘Pretty little Moor’. Emilia’s now in her early forties, undoubtedly attractive though sexualizing her begs questions of their threats. It’s often not ‘pretty little’ women who were deemed ‘witchy’ and threatened with the stake as happens here, but older women. Though being lettered and working class might do it.


Through being dragged out of the Thames, the establishment of a school there’s a crackdown moment with male authority elsewhere too – Russell’s exceedingly nasty Lord Howard contrast with affecting working-girl poet, Hester in some endearing, touching scenes.


In case the exuberant publishing and rapprochement with one timorous friend might seem saccharine, Malcolm doesn’t let us forget this is 1611. Historically questionable as one scene is, it carries a greater truth allowing an explosive Perkins a speech so powerful the audience are on their feet before she’s finished.


This is a necessary, thrilling play, its energy and messages spill straight into the audience and beg questions of a speedy transfer and revival. Like Jessica Swale’s different, equally exuberant Nell Gwynn it’d prove ideal for Globe On Tour.