United Players
Emilia by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm

When & Where November 12 – December 5, 2021 (Thurs-Sat at 8pm, Sun at 2pm), Talkback: November 18 | Jericho Arts Centre – plus streaming

Director Lois Anderson Composer/Sound Design Sierra Haynes Musical Director/Band Glee Devereaux Set and Costume Design Cecilia Vadala Choreography Ali Watson Fight Choreography Sylvie La Rivière Lighting Design Harika Xu Producer Linda Begg Technical Director Jamie Sweeney Stage Manager Anita Jian

Reviewer John Jane

In Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia, women play every role. In this United Players production, directed by Lois Anderson, women comprise the entire production team.

Emilia Lanier (née Emilia Bassano) is an enigma; a published English poet born in Bishopsgate, London mid-sixteenth century of an Italian father and an English mother. It’s thought by some literature scholars that she is the subject of William Shakespeare's Dark Lady Sonnets. Playwright Lloyd Malcolm provides a highly speculative, if largely entertaining, exploration of Emilia’s 76-year life. The playwright certainly attempts to fill in a few self-created blank spaces in the extraordinary poet’s life and yes, she plainly revamps history to suit her own narrative. It’s certainly easy to surmise that Emilia was one of Shakespeare’s many muses, but in Lloyd Malcolm’s account, the Bard would seem to have plagiarized our heroine.

There is certainly much to enjoy in this piece of theatre, though I confess I saw little benefit of having four (five if you want to count Piril Sesli’s brief play-within-a-play portrayal of Iago's wife Emilia), beyond gainful employment for the additional three actors. That is not to say that all four actors didn’t turn in stellar performances in the various facets of the protagonist’s life. I was especially impressed with Kiomi Pyke’s lively performance as the younger Emilia.

My only real gripe is that, even though a majority of the play’s dialogue is delivered in contemporary language, every so often we get some Shakespeare jargon thrown in that tends to water down the humour and distracts from the play’s intended backlash towards patriarchy.

While the eponymous character is central to the story, this is a true ensemble piece and therefore hard to single out individual performances. Perhaps the exceptions are Charmaine Sibande who arguably has the most to do as the third Emilia exhibiting controlled rage and Dana Schindel is hilarious as Susan Bertie, Emilia’s early mentor.

As expected, male characters get short shrift. Will Shakespeare and Emilia’s flakey spouse Alphonso Lanier are given caricature treatment by Hayley Sullivan and Addison Forster respectively. The single deviation is Piril Sesli’s sympathetic reading of Emilia’s benefactor Lord Carey.

Lois Anderson and her stage management team do an excellent job of keeping seventeen performers coordinated while maintaining an even pace. Cecilia Vadala’s economic set has to be pulled out to maximum to accommodate many actors (sometimes the entire cast) on stage simultaneously. Vadala’s clothing is period accurate for both the nobility and the peasantry.

Emilia is a lot of fun - and thumbs its nose at Tudor England. The pro-feminist proclivity – I sense - is mostly tongue-in-cheek.

© 2021 John Jane