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A CurtainUp London Review

" In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty's name;
But now is black beauty's successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature's power,
Fairing the foul with Art's false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress' eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland'ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so."

— William Shakespeare Sonnet 127
The Three Emilias (Vinette Robinson, Leah Harvey and Clare Perkins) (Photo: Helen Murray)
It can be a bit hit and miss when a new play launches at Shakespeare's Globe but Morgan Lloyd Malcolm's celebration of the life of Emilia Bassano Lanier is an exuberant hit. Director Nicole Charles steers an all female cast through numerous roles, including all those Tudor/Stuart gentlemen with magnificent locks and delicate moustaches and beards to match.

It was like watching a cast of more mature principal boys. Note: for Stateside, a principal boy is a role in the English pantomime of a handsome youth and is played by a tall girl in tights.

Emilia was one of the contenders to be Shakespeare's dark lady of the sonnets. The Emilia in Shakespeare's canon, is Desdemona's servant and Iago's wife in Othellowhere she speaks out for women, " But I do think it is their husbands' faults /If wives do fall." Emilia Bassano was born in 1569, the daughter of an Italian court musician, Baptiste Bassano and Margaret Johnson. Tudor conventional beauty was pale as pale.

Queen Elizabeth I painted her face with white lead. Shakespeare's Dark Lady is different. This from Sonnet 130:

"My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more fair then her lips fair
If snow be white, why then, her breast is dun,
If hair be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks..."

Aline Florio of Italian extraction is another contender to be the dark lady but as a programme note at the Globe makes clear, Emilia Bassano is celebrated here not for her purported relationship with Shakespeare but in her own right as a poet and educator.

Emilia is well played by three actors of maturing age, Leah Harvey, Vinette Robinson and Clare Perkins. The early scenes with Leah Harvey see Emilia receiving a courtly education with three other pupils, Lady Katherine (Nadia Albina), Lady Helena (Sophie Russell) and Lady Cordelia (Sarah Seggari). These attractive young ladies are visited by Elizabethan courtiers, men who swagger and hip swivel to convey their peacock outfits and self confidence and make us all giggle, because of course these are girls mimicking men at their most vain.

Lord Henry Carey, the Lord Chamberlain, (a dashing Carolyn Pickles) chooses Emilia to be his mistress and her pregnancy causes her to be married off to Lord Henry's relative Alphonso Lanier (Amanda Wilkin) who might bat for the other side. Emilia then meets William Shakespeare (Charity Wakefield). Her lover Lord Henry is a patron of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's acting company. Lord Henry dies in 1596 and Emilia's daughter Odillya is born in 1598 and dies at just ten months. Act One closes with Shakespeare's Emilia in Othello's speech about the role of men and women.

Emilia meets the washerwomen of the South Bank of the Thames and they ask her where she lives. Her response "Bishopsgate" is met with cries of envious "Oooh"s to delineate an upmarket area of the City. There is a record in 1617 of Emilia running a school in St Giles in the Fields and onstage she is educating working class women. In 1610 Emilia's volume of poetry Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is published. Lord Thomas Howard (Sophie Russell) attacks Emilia's writing. Eve (Anna Andresen) debates who was to blame for Adam's eviction from the Garden of Eden and is burnt as a witch underlining the lack of free speech for women and its terrible consequences.

Joana Scotcher's designs use a library of red and blue books, a circular shelf, an orb of the red volumes and shelves to the side of blue bound books, a few silver gilt goblets and jugs. The costumes, as we have come to expect from the Globe seamsters and seamstresses, are beautiful in period of the late 16th century and early 17th, with those of the male courtiers as plush as any, with rich brocades and slashed sleeves. The number of rapid changes behind the scenes as actors change character and gender must be fun but are really well organised so they appear seamless.

As Emilia, the magnificent Clare Perkins makes a rousing and powerful closing speech calling for women to be listened to, which brought the crowd to its feet, including those in The Pit who of course are already on their feet! The final dance incorporates stamping and mock boxing of anger and celebration. What a wonderful evening at The Globe!

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Written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm
Directed by Nicole Charles
Starring: Clare Perkins, Vinette Robinson, Leah Harvey, Carolyn Pickles, Nadia Albina, Sophie Russell, Charity Wakefield, Amanda Wilkin
With: Anna Andersen, Shiloh Coke, Jenni Maitland, Sarah Seggari, Sophie Stone, Emily Baines,
Musicians: Elinor Chambers, Calie Hough, Sarah Humphrys, Sharon Lindo
Design: Joanna Scotcher
Composer: Bill Barclay
Choreographer: Anna Morrissey
Fight Directors: Rachel Bown Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown of Rc-Annie Ltd
Physical Comedy Director: Joe Dieffenbacher
Running time: Two hours 50 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0207 401 9919
Booking to 1st September 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th August 2018 performance at Shakespeare's Globe, New Globe Walk, London SE1 9DT (Rail/Tube: London Bridge or St Paul's and via the wobbly bridge)
Index of reviewed shows still running

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