A cloud of mystery will always hang over the private life of William Shakespeare. One of the most intriguing characters in his story is musician’s daughter Emilia Lanier, thought by many to be his Dark Lady of the Sonnets. The life of Emilia, a poet in her own right, has been the subject of much conjecture. Her character, in particular, has been hard to pin down. Based on her poetry she is often perceived as a forward thinker with a forceful persona. This interpretation of Emilia certainly places her as a strong personality who knows her own mind.
The play begins as Shakespeare, played by James Rosier, quickly establishes his own character. His Shakespeare is cheerful, physical and very theatrical. “Will” and his wife Anne Hathaway, played by Tanya Walker, are introduced as a couple. Anne and her husband are good friends. But it is clear she has to work to get his attention. When Emilia (Arta Mucaj) walks into Shakespeare’s life he falls for her. He loses himself in his fantasy of an ideal relationship with this haughty beauty. Her spurning him attracts him very much.
Emilia is trapped in a marriage of convenience, and has a wealthy lover who satisfies her material whims. Not born with wealth or status, she has long used her body as her only tool to lure men. This has led her to become very jaded with them. She has gotten into the habit of holding back. Shakespeare gives her, at first, a sense of being touched spiritually. He introduces her to a theatrical world which appeals to the aspiring woman writer, entices her sense of fun, and gives her some emotional fulfillment. But she gives little to him spiritually. She simply is not going to let Shakespeare get to know her.
So, the play presents a simple love triangle. A bored husband runs after an inscrutable beauty while his yearning wife struggles to compete. What makes this simple premise work is how uniquely the characters are presented. The famous identities of Shakespeare, Anne and Emilia are given very fresh interpretations by playwright Condello, and are creatively directed by Chris Hosking.
The play is profound and complex and Condello’s writing style complements Shakespeare’s beautifully. Performances by all actors are energetic, sparkling and dynamic. Rosier’s Shakespeare is playful and boyish, while Walker’s Anne Hathaway is philosophical and gentle. Mucaj’s Emilia, who is majestically larger-than-life, is a great foil for her. Tommy Kay gives astonishingly powerful performances as Henry and John, two characters who serve completely opposite purposes in the play, and appears briefly as Romeo. Darren Mort as Lord Hunsden and Mark Antony likewise shows dexterity in playing a few wildly different characters in the same play. Jamaica Zuanetti, who plays Titania and the Queen, gives suitably regal performances and has very good diction. She is very different to the two other actresses on stage. It was nice to see how the characters and the actors were complementing each other.
If I have a criticism of the play it is the sound. Quite a few lines in this play are intimate and whispered, and they were lost. The play is performed in a cavernous space, and microphones would have been a great improvement. The costumes, with black and white predominating, are simple and stylish. The set, designed by Francesca David, consists of columns of scrunched-up paper. This symbolism invites us to ponder how all Shakespeare’s passion for Emilia poured out in those pages and pages of writing. There is a predominance of orange in the lighting plot, which is designed by Erin Duyndam. This gives the effect of the balls of paper being lit as if by firelight. It makes the stage space look intimate. The dynamic performances, striking poses are a treat, as are the attractive production and the thoughtful text. I very much enjoyed this night out.