Tag Archives: Clare Perkins

“Emilia” from the Vaudeville Theatre

Archive recordings of shows can never match a live experience. But, thankfully, the energy that powers Morgan Lloyd Malcom’s 2018 play is so ferocious, exciting and contagious that this filming (far from the highest quality) still does this stirring play proud.

Lloyd Malcom uses the life of Renaissance writer Emilia Bassano to highlight modern concerns about representation, sexism and racism. I’ve seen it described as “mock history”, which sums up its irreverent tone if not quite doing justice to the anger in the piece.

That rage first: Bassano’s life story provides a framework for examining the prejudices women and immigrants face. There are efforts to highlight hope, too – calls for action as much as anger. If a balance was intended it has, surely, failed. But what’s wrong with angry? Bassano – “stifled, ignored, abused” – certainly had plenty to be cross about.

As for cheek, Emilia is a very witty play, with lots of jokes around period details and plenty of fun at the expense of men. Lloyd Malcom is a dab hand at deadpan lines that the cast deliver brilliantly. Unafraid of crudity or contemporary touches (a dance lesson proves a fantastic scene for Jenni Maitland as the Countess of Kent), the jokes are strong.

Lloyd Malcolm spoils us with ideas and loose ends result. There’s the notion of “muscle memory” that women have concerning feminine experiences that surely needs developing. And the matter of Emilia’s own privilege causes the play to stumble more than once. Part of acknowledging Emilia’s relative wealth, scenes with her as an educator (of working-class women) deserve to be a play in their own right.

This recording is of the show’s second outing after a premiere at Shakespeare’s Globe. Some of the charge of having Shakespeare as a character in Emilia might be diminished in the new location. In truth, this is not the strongest role, despite Charity Wakefield’s efforts. But the play isn’t hampered by the Vaudeville’s smaller stage and Luisa Gerstein’s music benefits from being indoors. Nicole Charles’ direction is excellent, keeping the action moving with well-placed pauses at emotional moments. Thanks to Charles the production is more contained and focused.

All involved excel at making Emilia clear. Getting hung up on period detail (well, any detail really) is avoided in favour of entertainment and polemic. That so much ground is covered, with such confidence, is aided by having Emilia represented by three actors. Which leads to a trio of fantastic performances from Saffron Coomber and Adelle Leonce, led by Clare Perkins. In a play whose project is to provide a voice to those ignored, these women prove the foundation for the production’s success.

Until 2 December 2020

www.emilialive.com

"Sweat" at the Gielgud Theatre

After rave reviews and a sell-out run at the Donmar Warehouse, the transfer of Lynn Nottage’s play is especially welcome. A political play about blue-collar America and trade unionism isn’t your average West End fare. Brilliant performances and excellent direction count for many stars awarded by the critics. But, above all, it’s the marvellous work from an exceptional writer that makes this one of the best plays I’ve seen in an age. Oh, and it won a Pulitzer Prize.

At the heart of Sweat’s success are a series of characters that we come to know so intimately. As a trio of work friends whose jobs in a steel factory and threatened and then lost, Jessie, Cynthia and Tracey make for wonderful studies that Leanne Best, Clare Perkins and Martha Plimpton all excel in. Their history established with speed, when Cynthia moves from shop floor to office door we get a moving moral dilemma brimming with conflict.

The action takes place in the women’s local bar, and the manager’s bar-room philosophy and news commentary, skilfully delivered by Stuart McQuarrie, add to the sense of a whole community, maybe the whole US. The complex picture is created with such a natural touch it seems effortless on Nottage’s part – and appreciated by director Lynette Linton – but what technique!

Let’s not be naïve. Focus on the women in the factory and ethnic minorities working in the bar could feel tokenistic. Here, it’s what it is – real life. And the characters are all the more remarkable when we come to consider how functional each role is. Each represents a response to or facet of economic meltdown. NAFTA, the rise of nationalism and anti-immigration rhetoric, even self-medication and the opioid epidemic are all issues raised. And, handled with such humanity, Nottage makes them personal.

If Sweat still sounds dry, exceptional plotting makes the delivery anything but. There’s a thrilling mystery here surrounding two of the women’s sons, Jason and Chris, and a crime that occurs. Beginning with their release from prison we’re left guessing what happened, even who the victim was. With yet more tremendous performances, from Patrick Gibson and Osy Ikhile, we see a once close friendship and the disturbed characters both men have become. During the second act, Linton ratchets up the tension: who does what to whom is unexpected, the cruelty of events ripping a community further apart.

When racism rears its head, it is especially poignant as we see a friendship destroyed. Yet understanding how violence has escalated shows the play has important insights. As well as examining the systemic in society, Nottage takes into account an element of chance. Think of the characters, to various degrees, as unlucky and it’s sure to change any moral judgements you might make. Sweat ends as a challenging piece, preventing us from condemning any of its protagonists too quickly. It creates an uneasy sense of ‘there but for the grace of God’ time after time in a way only the very best theatre can.

Until 20 July 2019

www.sweattheplay.com

“Emilia” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Ostensibly an historical biography of poet and proto-feminist Emilia Bassano, playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and her director Nicole Charles have current times very much in mind for a play that’s about sexism and racism.

The key move is to use the fact that little is known about Bassano. If the name rings a bell, it’s as the reputed ‘dark lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets: the casting takes this literally to examine prejudices suffered due to race as well as gender. The wish is to reclaim women and minorities in history, and the result is unashamedly political.

The language alone tells you the target is the here and now. There’s talk of positions of privilege and mansplaining and, when it comes to dancing, they “slay”. Lloyd Morgan’s many eloquent turns of phrase include a motif of “uprooted growth” for Bassano’s African origins: a heritage that means she is used as a “curiosity” at court – a double whammy of abuse.

We get not one but three Emilias, who are all impressive. Led by a magisterial Clare Perkins, there are strong performances from Vinette Robinson and Leah Harvey, who work together to take us through the character’s life.

Leah Harvey and Charity Wakefield

The all-female ensemble supports with vigour in a variety of roles, most entertainingly when taking on male parts. Sophie Russell’s Lord Howard is great, with a brilliant dash of Lord Flashheart from Blackadder. And we get to meet Will Shakespeare himself – a delicious performance from Charity Wakefield – who gets a poor rap considering he’s one reason we’re all sitting on the Southbank. Appropriating some of Bassano’s lines, he’s part of the problem, saved only by being amusingly ineffectual. Emilia is specially commissioned for The Globe, a scene is set in the theatre and Charles uses the space superbly – maybe the chance to resist bardolatry was irresistible.

It seems safe to say Lloyd Malcolm hopes to stir debate. Uncomfortable parallels with Elizabethan immigration policy are leapt on and Emilia’s wish for a “voice” is a recurring theme. There are some problems: religion is mostly omitted and considering class brings a lot of trouble. Emilia comes to see her own privilege and, as is de rigueur, has to be reminded that victimhood isn’t a competition by a circle of sisterly support, Yet with the working-class women Emilia befriends, somewhat miraculously, we are in tarts-with-hearts territory too quickly.

This is an openly angry affair and that may turn some people off. Yet the sense that theatre can do something, a calling to account and an empowerment, is sincere and moving. But it does have an unfortunate consequence. The play destines itself to fail as biography: the action is too brief, taking on too many key moments (a baby daughter’s death feels especially truncated), when fewer might have been addressed in more depth. The result is little sense of Emilia as an individual. The character can’t get away from the – always admirable – arguments. You can cheer along with many of the sentiments, but is there a question that Emilia is merely being used all over again?

Until 1 September 2018

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photos by Helen Murray