Review: Emilia at Shakespeare's Globe

Photo courtesy of Helen Murray (2018)

Photo courtesy of Helen Murray (2018)

It’s a strange thing, watching history. But that’s exactly what the final performance of Emilia felt like, standing in the yard of Shakespeare’s Globe while the cheers rang out for encore after encore, all tears and hugs and a feeling, distinct and yet somehow universally shared among the assembled, some of whom had returned for third, fourth, and even fifth viewings. A feeling that something had happened, or rather, was about to begin.

I am not equipped to articulate the significance of this play. Neither am I equipped to articulate the significance of what it might mean for women, people of colour, the differently-abled and, more generally, the marginalised voices of history. Far better (and more capable) writers than I have already done so. Besides, one need not look very far for these opinions – just search #Emilia on Twitter. What I can do however, is articulate how well Emilia succeeds as a play, a performance, and a production. And reader, Emilia exceeded in all three.

Emilia Lanier (née Bassano) was a poet of the Elizabethan era, the first Englishwoman to publish as such, and a possible inspiration (or originator) for Shakespeare’s work – namely as the ‘dark lady’ of his sonnets with dun skin and black hair. Written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and under the direction of Nicole Charles, the play tells Emilia’s story and struggle to assert herself as an artist and woman, and does so with heart and humour, passion and purpose, and endless, joyous invention.

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s script perfectly captures the language of the time for a modern audience, making excellent use of period detail and gleefully knowing, anachronistic humour. Despite its historic setting, the play is freshly relevant to our times, not least for its subtle yet effective discussions of immigration, race, and female agency. In relating the past to the present day, the play smartly and subversively questions how far we really have advanced as a society when such issues remain unsolved.

Photo courtesy of Helen Murray (2018)

Photo courtesy of Helen Murray (2018)

The ensemble cast are a delight to behold. The performers bring life to a vast array of personalities both tragic and comic, from dedicated heroines (Leah Harvey, Vinette Robinson, Clare Perkins), courtiers both sleazy and affected (Shiloh Coke, Carolyn Pickles, Sophie Russell, Amanda Wilkin) and of course, Shakespeare himself (Charity Wakefield), wonderfully imagined here as an insufferably self-important oaf. 

Why heroines and not heroine? Well, there are three Emilias in the play, all representing various stages and ages of the poet’s life. To use three people to play one character (often simultaneously) could easily be awkward and confusing. However, Nicole Charles’s creative direction blends the performances seamlessly. We are not just watching Emilia at different stages of her life but also Emilia in different states of mind – the determined, the despairing, and the defiant – and sometimes all at the same time.

Credit must also be paid to the production team for creating a world of sound and colour that feels both imminently real yet undeniably magical. The music, as composed by Bill Barclay and performed by Elinor Chambers, Calie Hough, Sarah Humphrys and Sharon Lindo, evokes the time and place yet carries with it mystery and promise befitting Emilia’s tale, while Joanna Scotcher’s costuming is exquisite and charming, with meticulous attention to detail.

One of the real stars of the show is Scotcher’s set. The design conjures images of an enchanted library, a sacred space of learning and actualisation so often denied to women throughout history and completed here with a circular portal that could well represent an opening to the world of the past, the mind, and maybe even the future – one in which women might be truly free to create, to love, and to be.

Emilia is not history rewritten, but history relived. The play is the rarest of achievements, a work that serves as more than its writer, director, cast and crew. Emilia sings, shouts, and screams with the voices of generations stretching back into the past and outward into the future – an echo through time, and a call forward, forward, forward.

Conscious Un-Bonding: What's missing from the James Bond discussion

Idris Elba (2018). Photo courtesy of Harald Krichel. 

Idris Elba (2018). Photo courtesy of Harald Krichel. 

James Bond is black. At this point, he may as well be. The court of public opinion seems to have decided that Idris Elba will be the first black Bond(TM), which is probably a little awkward, given how consistently Mr Elba has stated the exact opposite. But I think what's missing from this discussion is a look at how the Bond character has been (and continues to be) defined by context and popular attitudes. In other words, the question shouldn’t be whether our times are ready for a black Bond, but whether Bond is ready for our times.

The idea of black Bond, and of Mr Elba taking on the role, has been around since 2010. If it wasn’t for the typically yawnsome rebuttals from indignant ‘traditionalists’ (or, you know, racists), the discussion may have ended there. Instead, what started as a bit of fun speculation has morphed into a sort of absurdist anti-racist campaign. Much like with the fall-out over the Ghostbusters remake, this backlash has made progressives even more determined – seemingly against the actor’s own wishes. No, Mr Elba, I expect you to be Bond.

But the problem is not who plays the character, but rather what the character represents. James Bond was always a form of wish-fulfilment for Britain, particularly British men. Introduced in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel Casino Royale, James Bond became a hit with a post-war generation who not only had a taste for espionage, but an acute awareness of the country’s crumbling relevancy on the world stage.

Original film poster for Dr No (1962).

Original film poster for Dr No (1962).

As more people gained access to consumer goods and even foreign travel, James Bond came to represent a form of Britishness that was at once backward-looking to Imperial supremacy, but also modern, worldly, and hedonistic. As Dominic Sandbrook notes in his book, Never Had It So Good: “James Bond was the emblem of modern affluence, living a life of conspicuous consumption, luxury and sexual licence, surrounded by first-class airline tickets, champagne bottles and Turkish cigarettes.” The idealised image of British masculinity – suave and powerful, dispatching foreign baddies with silly names and bedding exotic women with even sillier ones.

It’s not difficult to see why such a character would be, to employ a favoured adjective of our current moment, ‘problematic’. Beyond the obvious racial insensitivities that have long been a staple of the franchise, one wonders if a character so defined by womanising chauvinism can exist in the era of #MeToo. From sexist insults to actual rape, James Bond has never been a paragon for respectful relations with women. As the entertainment industry continues to fight the fires from wave on wave of assault allegations, it’s not surprising that filmmakers should be so keen to distance themselves from the misogyny of this character, least of all its leading star.

Despite recent protestations, the attempt to address sexism in Bond is not new. Perhaps indicative of the burgeoning political correctness of the 90s, the 1995 return of Bond in Goldeneye saw a woman (and not just any woman – Dame Judi Dench) take on the role of M who, in her first scene, admonishes 007 for being a ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur – a relic of the Cold War.’

Not that it matters of course, as not long after this moment of redress, Bond is back to undress, namely the ‘Bond girl’ Natalya and the femme fatale Xenia Onatopp (hurr geddit?). It’s as if the filmmakers believed that, by acknowledging Bond’s sexism early on, they could avoid criticism of his continued, consequence-free escapades. This confused, half-arsed, and ultimately insincere approach has persisted to the present day – but is proving harder to sustain.

Director Danny Boyle (2008), who was due to direct the next instalment of the Bond franchise before leaving in August 2018 due to 'creative differences.' Photo courtesy of Gordon Correll. 

Director Danny Boyle (2008), who was due to direct the next instalment of the Bond franchise before leaving in August 2018 due to 'creative differences.' Photo courtesy of Gordon Correll. 

The James Bond we know does not belong in this era. He just won’t fit. Studios may attempt to ensure the biggest box office returns by trying to please both feminists and the Sun readership, but their attempts will only alienate both audiences. Put simply, it does not matter how much agency the female characters are given, or how often Bond is punished for his shortcomings. It does not even matter that he gets affirmative consent. The fundamental essence of the character is the same – white, male, chauvinist – and as long as that stays the same, any attempt to ‘clean-up the franchise’ will ultimately fail.

Before we can have a black Bond, a female Bond, or any other kind of Bond, we first need to rethink our relationship with the character – who he is, where he comes from, and what he represents. Filmmakers can keep trying (and failing) to reconcile the character with the modern era, but they are missing an incredible opportunity for reinvention at what is a crucial moment in our national, social, and cultural history.

James Bond reflects the ideals of the popular imagination. He is, in many ways, the man that men have longed to be. He is the result of post-war anxieties about nationality, consumerist appetites and a Western, male-dominated culture that saw women as commodities and foreigners as devious and degenerate. But what if he came to reflect something else?