The awards night love for this shouty, inclusive, all-female play is giving me hope for the future of theatre.
The Olivier Awards snuck up on me this year, the way they do most years. I’m the kind of theatre fan who watches the news break on Twitter and cares deeply about maybe two shows and not at all about the rest of them. This year, considering the nominations were announced in March and the awards were postponed from April until October, I’d completely forgotten who was even up for what. So imagine my confusion when I saw the announcements for Emilia’s three Olivier wins last night and a lump appeared in my throat.
Written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and directed by Nicole Charles, Emilia started life at Shakespeare’s Globe and ran at London’s Vaudeville Theatre from March to June, 2019. It was inspired by the life of Emilia Bassano, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s who may have inspired the “dark lady” in his poetry but who, more importantly, became England’s first published female poet. Lloyd Malcolm took everything we know or guess about Bassano’s life and converted it into an unflinching feminist fable about finding your voice, paying it forward and never shutting up. Deborah Frances-White, host of The Guilty Feminist podcast, rightly called it “feminist church”.
I saw the play in April 2019, which I now remember as a magical time when my two closest girl friends and I could casually book tickets to a West End show at a week’s notice and even hug each other when we got there. It was playing right next to Waitress – another show about sisterhood and the paths women’s lives can take. We knew it was written and directed by women with an all-female cast, but it really hit us what kind of show we were in for when we saw the names on the crew list. There wasn’t a Tim or Barry in sight.
Among those names were Emma Laxton and Joanna Scotcher, who took home two of Emilia’s statuettes for Best Sound Design and Best Costume Design respectively. Laxton is only the second woman to win an Olivier for sound design since the award was introduced 17 years ago – the first was Carolyn Downing, who shared the 2014 award with Gareth Owen when judges couldn’t pick between them. In fact, with six wins between Gareths Owen and Fry, the sound design Olivier is far more likely to go to a man named Gareth than to any woman.
Emilia was loud, funny and confronting – or as one male critic put it, “vulgar”, “shouty” and “shamelessly militant”. My friends and I left the theatre full of pride and solidarity, pinning “this century is ours” and “don’t stop now!” badges to our coats. The script was unsubtle and occasionally didactic, but the show walked the talk. For one thing, actors with visible disabilities were cast in roles where those disabilities weren’t directly relevant – something I’d never seen before on a West End stage.
The play went on to become the first West End show to hold a baby-friendly performance, installing bottle warmers and changing mats and relaxing the rules on audience silence to make theatre accessible for new parents. The team behind Emilia knew that the message at the end of the show – where Emilia and the cast lay the burden of responsibility on the audience to raise their voices and fight for equality – would be empty if they didn’t back up their words with action.
In the Best Entertainment or Comedy Play category this year, Emilia was up against none other than Fleabag – the revival of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s smash hit one-woman show, returning to the stage for one last time after the TV adaptation took over the world. Those tickets were in such huge demand they were released on a lottery-only basis. It was a brilliant show about being a posh young white woman in the late 2010s, which meant that lots of other posh white people praised its depiction of a “universal” female experience. And it lost to a boisterous, imperfect show starring three Black women that tried its best to include everyone and closed two weeks early.
I love theatre, but it’s elitist, and the Oliviers even more so. The West End is built on straight white male money and perspectives and it does not like change. And yet, as well as Emilia’s gongs, Best New Dance Production this year went to Ingoma, a fusion of African dance and ballet celebrating Black and Asian dancers. Ingoma was, by the way, also honoured at the Black British Theatre Awards, which were held on the same night: Miriam-Teak Lee picked up Best Female Actor in a Musical for & Juliet at the BBTAs hours before accepting her Best Actress in a Musical Olivier award. The Best Actress Olivier went to national treasure Sharon D Clarke MBE for Death of a Salesman, capping off a night studded with brilliant Black British talent.
The future of UK theatre is currently hanging in the balance, and we now have a chance to build something even greater than what we had. It was thrilling enough that a play like Emilia made it to the Vaudeville. To see it named the best in its field feels like a ray of real hope.
UPDATE: You can watch Emilia online at emilialive.com from 1 March – 31 March 2021 in a pay-what-you-can stream to celebrate International Women’s Day, with profits going to its freelance cast and crew.