The Vaudeville Theatre is packed with Millenials – buzzing with anticipation for a play about Emilia Bassano Lanier a virtually unknown, Elizabethan poet. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this kind of enthusiasm. ‘I’ve heard it’s really empowering…’ says a twenty something student behind me. With a genuinely diverse, all female cast and a fresh and intimate approach, it’s clear that a seventeenth century woman's battle to be heard has struck a chord with contemporary audiences. As Emilia reminds us at the start, ‘we are only as powerful as the stories we tell.’

After the death of her father, a court musician, Emilia Bassano Lanier, with her dark complexion and attractive ‘otherness,’ grew tired of being a court curiosity and became the mistress of Henry Carey. He was a powerful man in his sixties and gave her the security to develop her own writing, becoming the first published female English poet. There isn’t a great deal written about Emilia’s life, leaving huge scope for Lloyd Malcolm’s unfolding story with its heroine played by three actors. Saffron Coomber is an irrepressible young Emilia, Adelle Leonce, the troubled young adult and the brilliant Claire Perkins is narrator and driver of the drama. The rest of the ensemble cast take on different roles with plenty of comic cameos and a stand out performance from Jackie Clune as the hilariously misogynistic Lord Thomas Howard.

A.L. Rowse claimed that she was the ‘dark lady’ in Shakespeare’s sonnets and the scenes between Emilia and Shakespeare are some of the sharpest and best. Charity Wakefield makes a delightfully self-satisfied Shakespeare with an incredible blow-dry and a spring in his step. Yet the heart of the narrative lies in a writing group that she starts and the relationships she builds with the poor women ‘south of the river.’ This is where Emilia faces the very real risk taken by women who dared to speak out against patriarchal oppression.

Commissioned for the Globe, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm was writing just as the #me too movement was gaining momentum and the relationship between the past and present permeate every aspect of this thrilling production. The original music by Luisa Gerstein is witty, sometimes rousing and often beautiful, mixing the voices of the female cast with flute, cello and electronic beats. At times it feels more like a call to arms than a play, for women everywhere to unite against oppression in the name of sisters past and present. If that sounds exhausting, it’s refreshingly accessible and there are plenty of laughs to keep both women and men in the audience afloat.

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