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  • Alex First

Emilia (Essential Theatre) at Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne - 130 minutes, plus interval

Updated: Nov 13

A searing feminist work about a woman far ahead of her time, British playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm was inspired by the life of 16th and 17th century poet Emilia Bassano.


Feisty and fiery, Emilia stood up for women’s rights and couldn’t see why they should subjugate themselves to men.


By various accounts, she was Shakespeare’s muse and one of his many lovers.

Photos by Dylan Hornsby from Good Gravy Media


Emilia saw heartbreak at an early age, with the passing of her father when she was just seven and her mother eight years later.


She came from a musical family who had performed for royalty and so it was that the Countess of Kent took her in to prepare her for court.


Mind you, the Countess’ view was that Emilia and other young females could improve their station in life by “marrying up”.

At the time, men held all the cards. What they said went and there were no beg pardons.


Emilia, the play, works through the many experiences in the titular heroine’s life.


They included being “kept” and allowed to pursue her writing by a much older man.


There was marriage, childbirth, being shunned and pilloried, starting again and setting a new agenda among contemporaries who admired her.


That agenda was very much about putting on paper what she was feeling and seeing all around her.

Emilia has a witty pantomime quality about it. At times it is very funny and ribald. It leaves you wanting to hiss at most of the male characters, all played by women and non-binary performers, I should quickly add.


Many of the actors play multiple roles.


Notwithstanding the humour and byplay, at its core is the power imbalance that existed at the time, which is shown up in all its ugliness.


No less than three performers play Emilia at various stages of life and all do a fine job with the material they have to work with.

Lisa Maza acts as the narrator and eldest of the Emilias. Manali Datar is the young, no-nonsense character, while Cessalee Stoval takes over the middle portion of the story.


They ensure that Emilia is seen as a trailblazer who endured much, which may well have broken others if put in the same position.


On the opening night, the play was stopped early when the artist playing Shakespeare was injured.


After a break of some 20 minutes or more, accomplished performer Izabella Yena stood in for her and did so with aplomb. With a script in hand, she proved herself to be a dab hand as the conceited Bard.


Another to impress was Emma J. Hawkins as Lady Margaret Clifford, who offers Emilia a job tutoring her enthusiastic daughter.

In fact, collectively, the 13 performers seemed to be having a wow of a time.


Emilia, the play, leaves a lasting impression about women who are sick and tired of being treated as second class citizens and are not willing to take it anymore.


It is bound to strike a chord with many.


Directed by Petra Kalive, Emilia is on at Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until 27th November, 2022.