Emilia Bassano lived from 1569-1645 and was the daughter of an Italian court musician. She was a poet, a mother, a teacher and for five years the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain. It’s in those five years that historian AL Rowse has claimed that she met Shakespeare and inspired his sonnets (127-154) featuring as “The Dark Lady.”
Before we go any further, it’s worth noting that many dispute Rowse’s claim. However, it’s possibly because of the lack of clarity about her life that this play, by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, really works. As much as this is a play about her, it’s more a play about women in general and the exploitation of gender in the Elizabethan era (and for many years since) - which you can’t really dispute the facts of.
It’s angry and joyful in equal measure. The curtains opens and close with whooping and dancing, but for long swathes in-between it’s an impassioned and vitriolic diatribe on the patriarchy. Frankly, a well-deserved one too.
As with the 2018 production of this at the Globe, all of the cast are played by female actors (including the male roles). The titular character is played by three actors at various ages of her life (Jessie-Mae Alonzo, Mya Fox-Scott and Chantelle Nelson). All of these young actors bring different things to the role, but rage and resilience are both requisite. They are surrounded by a talented supporting cast including the opulent Lord Henry Carey (Rebecca Johnson), a doddery and humourous Shakespeare (Sarah Moat) and the bookish Mary Sidney (Charlie Mackenzie-Barrow).
As well as a strong and emotional storyline, there are lots of little touches that make this work. There are several bouts of singing and dancing and we’re told local singer-songwriter Rob Green chipped in on coaching for these. There’s also a great wardrobe, which we believe ‘Sir’ Paul Smith, or at least his company, helped put together. These little touches of class really help it to sparkle.
All in it’s another well-thought out couple of hours of theatre from Nottingham’s brightest young stars. This play is directed by Tim Evans (who has now been part of Television Workshop for a quarter of a century) and backed up by Natalie Bruce (who's probably done 15 years there herself). It’s great to see them both directing a group of young people in the same network they were once part of. A triumph all round!
The Television Workshop website