Pop-up Globe’s Emilia is a feminist meta-Shakespearean romp through history

Fierce, passionate and very often hilarious, Emilia is the theatrical antidote to the Shakespearean role of women in a society that silenced, controlled and even killed them. Originally commissioned by the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Emilia first graced the stage in August 2018. Now, in the final season of Auckland’s Pop-up Globe, it’s making its international debut.

Written by UK based playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm (who was present on opening night), the story follows Emilia Bassano, a seventeenth-century poet, writer and teacher, who was rumoured to have been the Bard’s muse. We accompany her on a mission to have not only her voice heard but to pass on that ability to all women – no matter the consequences.

Undoubtedly a feminist play, the script plays with modern and classical prose styles while delivering some real zingers along the way. The all-female cast delivered a rapturous opening as a battle cry to stories that need to be told. This was an intro demonstration to the kick-ass choreography by Katrina George that we’d see throughout the play that’s not short of drama.

Directed by award-winning director and actor Miriama McDowell, the play features a diverse cast of Kiwi women. Emilia is played by three wonderful actors and these brilliant wāhine preside at the helm of the play. Acushla-Tara Kupe, Jen Van Epps and Fiona Collins play Emilia during different stages in her life – each getting a chance to show a range of comedic ability as well as devastating grief, anger and love. And, what a fantastic sisterhood they create with their fellow cast members. A real sense of camaraderie is present on stage alongside plenty of humour – but the key messages are never lost. 

Emilia review Auckland - Emilia review - photo credit Julie Zhuu
Acushla-Tara Kupe, Jen Van Epps and Fiona Collins play Emilia.
Photo credit Julie Zhu.

The supporting cast delivered some brilliant performances too. Lucinda Hare was hilarious and showed a very powerful stage presence no matter which character she was portraying. Sarah Houbolt got one of the biggest laughs of the night through her deadpan delivery during a somewhat acrobatic scaffolding dismount.

Much to the booing audiences delight, the cast hammed up the bad guys who in this play are, well, the guys – the men who oppress and silence them. Rashmi Pilapitiya revelled in her villainy as Lord Howard and the audience lapped it up. Celeste De-Freitas was a total crowd-pleaser anytime she was on stage but her take on Emilia’s closeted husband was a complete joy. And, as the Pop-up Globe space dictates, there’s plenty of fourth wall breaking and meta-Shakespearean moments. 

Two musicians, Shimna Higgins and Karen Hu accompany the performance on stage throughout, providing for mood and subtlety when needed. The oversized book props onstage by Catherine Grealish are used in various creative ways while leaving a strong visual impact. And, the costumes by Chantelle Gerrard are beautifully made producing strong silhouettes that also allowed for great movement and quick changes on stage, as well as giving the performers a chance to sport bright colours. 

Emilia has now received three nominations in the 2020 Olivier Awards, given the nod for the ‘Noel Coward award for best entertainment or comedy play’, as well as ‘Best Sound Design’ and ‘Best Costume Design’. So, this is truly one not to be missed during it’s run until 22nd March at the Pop-up Globe before the Anthony Harper Pop-up Globe playhouse pops down, setting their sights on international touring seasons. 

Emilia is a feminist meta-Shakespearean romp through history.

Reviewed by Ingrid Grenar. Photo credit Julie Zhu.

4 small stars