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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

I am Emilia Bassano (75 minutes) at Justin Art House Museum, 3 Lumley Court, Prahran

What’s the truism? Behind every great man there is a woman.

There would be few arguments that the greatest writer of all time was William Shakespeare.

But what if Shakespeare, who is credited with writing at least 37 plays (and collaborated on several more), didn’t actually do so?

I mean, what if it wasn’t Shakespeare who wrote them, rather a young woman named Emilia Bassano?

Photos by Claire Soveny

That is the contention explored in I am Emilia Bassano, a play – which includes songs – written by John Warszawski and directed by Briony Dunn.

It is a parody and is running in the main gallery of Justin Art House Museum, in line with its Art & Gender exhibition.

The plot unfolds with Emilia (Kiara Ariza Stellato Pledger) alongside her jester sidekick Touchstone (Lachlan Watts).

On the personal front, I am Emilia Bassano paints Shakespeare unfavourably – as a drunkard with illiterate daughters.

Before “ghosting” Shakespeare’s works, the piece contends that Emilia was mentored by Christopher Marlowe. In turn, she became his muse and lover, and bore a child with him.

Emilia was the Jewish daughter of Venetian-born musician Baptiste Bassano and his wife, who was of Moroccan descent.

Emilia was introduced to Queen Elizabeth I, who received music lessons from Baptiste and had high regard for him.

After a scholarly upbringing, Emilia would go on to become one of the first published female poets.

Still, as a woman of foreign heritage, for much of her life she had to hide her identity.

It takes a while to appreciate just what is going down in I am Emilia Bassano, although the assertion of the playwright of her role in history is never in doubt.

I greatly valued the juicy tale that was woven, notwithstanding reservations.

That is, I cared more for the dramatisations than for the levity. The silliness didn’t sit all that comfortably with me. I thought it was childish.

At times, the work breaks the fourth wall, with the actors directly addressing the audience. I felt that was unnecessary, although I don’t question Pledger and Watts’ acting chops.

Both are quite accomplished and play multiple roles with ease. In addition to being Emilia, Pledger also channels Queen Elizabeth I. Watts is the jester, the angel of death, Marlowe and Shakespeare.

An understanding of historical context in which the production is set would be a distinct advantage. But even without that, the play whets one’s appetite to learn more about the time period.

Marlowe is credited as Shakespeare’s co-writer on three of the Bard’s plays and, of course, the common thread in I am Emilia Bassano is, indeed, the woman herself.

Intriguing? You betcha.

I am Emilia Bassano is playing at Justin Art House Museum, 3 Lumley Court, Prahran until 21st August, 2022.


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