Miriama McDowell’s Emilia is the final production to grace the Pop-up Globe before it closes permanently for us here in Aotearoa — and what a beautifully crafted gift she has bequeathed.
In an all-female cast, the story of Shakespeare’s lover, Emilia Bassano (made famous by Will’s sonnets to the ‘Dark Lady’) replaces the Bard’s traditional plays.
Written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm specifically for London’s Globe, this production places a woman centre-stage at what was a deeply misogynistic and homophobic period – despite the flurry of artistic creation.
In fact, Emilia is played by three different compelling actors (Acushla-Tara Kupe, Jen Van Epps and Fiona Collins) and is surrounded by women from a variety of backgrounds and rank.
The story itself gets occasionally lost in the tumult of jokes, hearty humour and audience interaction, but it is true to the highly interactive style of the Globe theatre. The two-hour-long performance (plus interval) guarantees a fabulously theatrical experience that is enhanced by the fact a number of women, of different ages, sizes, abilities and backgrounds come forth to tread the boards.
All three Emilias are excellent, and their costumes are meaningfully chosen. Costumier Chantelle Gerrard has them wearing different but similar dark red dresses while the rest of the ensemble shift between chromatic tones of the upper class to brightly coloured aprons of washer women; and of course, the whole suited caboodle to reflect the dominance of the Y chromosome.
Kupe’s young and fiery Emilia is a well-chosen juxtaposition to the older versions and while Van Epps and Collins show no less fire — they bring nuanced understandings of motherhood, emotional fatigue and ultimately unwavering determination to creating change in an oppressive society.
In addition, Batanai Mashingaidze is a stand-out performer as Shakespeare himself; Bree Peters’ sharp and varied performances as Mary Sidney and the mid-wife are unforgettable and Grace Bentley-Tsibuah wins the audience over with her initially shy and then embolded performance of Eve. Sara Houboult is also excellent, displaying her circus training, presence and poise and Lucinda Hare charms us every time she’s on stage.
While the overall production rides high on energy and collective change the writing does remind us of a very particular brand of dated 1980s feminism. While it is heartening to see women of colour on stage it is a tad disappointing as for the most part we are still encouraged to see it as colour-blind as opposed to colour-conscious casting.
The exceptions are in the use of te reo Māori at the beginning to welcome the ensemble (yet Emilia is an Italian immigrant herself to London’s shores?) and when the washerwomen all speak in deeply exaggerated accents to emphasize where they’re ‘really’ from. The latter especially is both questionable and awkward especially when one character slams the others’ ethnicity. The intentions behind these choices might have been well meaning but seem to perpetuate rather than unravel the casual racism in our systems.
It is the final season of the Pop-Up Globe and McDowell’s direction has created a lasting legacy. There is much to see, feel and embrace – and what better company to do so than Emilia and her women?