Dionne Christian talks to the team revealing the identity of a 17th century feminist and discovers the change she's bringing to contemporary theatre
Of all Emilia Bassano's achievements – surviving childbirth in the 1600s and the death of a child, fighting her late husband's family in court to keep her inheritance, starting a school to forge an independent career and living to the venerable age of 76 – perhaps the shrewdest was ensuring she put her name to the poems she wrote.
Had it not been for those poems, we might not, 375 years after her death in 1645, be seeing a West End hit play get its international premiere in New Zealand. Pop-up Globe farewells Auckland with Emilia, playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm's mock history, which was first performed in 2018, transferred from Shakespeare's Globe to the West End and is now being talked about as possible material for a film.
"History wrote Emilia out because it was men of power who held the pens to write that history," says actor Acushla Tara Kupe. "But if you look into the gaps [in those histories] we start to see quite an incredible woman."
And she may well have put her own name to her poems because she realised, long before the phrase slipped into popular parlance, that ultimately the pen is mightier than the sword.
But while it's nearly 400 years since Bassano declared herself a professional poet – the first English woman to do so – she's been best known for her role in one of literature's greatest mysteries.
She burst (back) upon the scene in 1973 when British historian Alfred Leslie Rowse declared Bassano could be the unknown "dark lady" of William Shakespeare's more sexually charged sonnets, where he writes of a woman - with black and wiry hair and dark, brown "dun"-coloured skin – who has betrayed him by loving other men.
Rowse based this partly on the diaries of astrologer Simon Forman, who counted Bassano, the daughter of an Italian court musician, among his clientele in the 1590s. Then, according to the star-reader, she was lamenting the end of her relationship with Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon - Tudor courtier and cousin to Elizabeth I. Lord Hunsdon was, at the time of the affair, 45 years older than Bassano and, when she became pregnant, her married off to her first cousin once removed, also a court musician.
Bassano certainly moved in the same circles as Shakespeare but Rowse misinterpreted Forman's words, translating "brave in youth" to "brown in youth" and, while he later acknowledged this error, he stuck to his assertion that she was the dark lady. (It also ignored the fact that Forman possibly wasn't the most reliable of sources; the astrologer dubbed Bassano a harlot and a whore and branded her as a social climber – perhaps because she rejected his advances.)
Enter feminist and revisionist academics who argue this speculation detracts from Bassano's work as a poet in her own right and risks reducing her to someone worthy of study only because of her relationships to famous men. Could it have been that rather than being a muse for any man, the men around her – and their patriarchal world – fuelled her own writing?
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Lloyd Malcolm's all-female play seeks to bring Bassano out of the shadows and give voice to "one of history's unsung feminist heroes" who, say all involved, is much more than an addendum to the life of Shakespeare.
The Auckland production stars 13 women who range in age, ethnicity, look and ability like few other casts seen on our main stages. They're directed by Miriama McDowell who took Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and transformed it for Pop-up Globe into a rollicking Pacific romance. McDowell wanted to direct Emilia because, she says, it's a fiercely feminist, provocative and truly ground-breaking play.
"For me, it's about women looking after each other so it actually doesn't matter what happens to us, we survive and we find joy together," she says. "What I learned during the auditions was that when you get a group of women together to tell stories, they find the joy, so what you're coming to watch, I think, is women who love to tell a story together and there's really dark shade to that story but there's lightness as well.
Kupe saw the show in London and returned home to be in the local version. She says it's for anyone who has ever had to fight to have their voice heard.
"It gives you permission and encourages you to live your truest self without apology. I don't know if that's the core message but it's one of the core messages: 'Dream your biggest dream and don't let anyone stop you but on your way, take your support crew and be kind, be kind and compassionate because you don't have to forgo the kindness to achieve pure joy.'"
But if Emilia is telling fresh stories, it's also setting the stage for theatre to be made differently. In keeping with Bassano's collaborative spirit – in her volume of poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, each poem was dedicated to a different woman - the play is written to have three women portraying Emilia rather than making it a vehicle for one lead and an ensemble. Theatre companies are also urged to push boundaries and open up casting to diverse performers.
McDowell notes on the first page of the script she received, Lloyd Malcolm said "when you cast this play, be bold."
"That's a pretty amazing starting point for casting a show so I went, 'How bold can I be here?' I went, 'I want to see women of colour' – that was my starting point. I could have just looked at Māori women, I could have looked at just Māori and Polynesian women but when the women started to come into the room, I went, 'Oh, it's bigger than that.'
"It's actually about the colours of this country and where we are now, which is a different representation than saying, 'We're Māori and Polynesian.' It's going, 'Oh, we are so many more cultures than we were just 10 years ago,' so that's so exciting to be given the freedom to do that."
Along with Kupe, Chinese/American and new to New Zealand Jennifer Van Epps auditioned for the first theatre she's made in nearly 15 years and portrays Emilia in mid-life while Samoan writer, film-maker and teacher Fiona Collins plays the senior Emilia.
McDowell was also urged to cast women of different abilities and, through friends, tracked down Sarah Houbolt, who's an international circus and physical theatre performer who happens to be blind. Houbolt has worked internationally including, most recently, in Brazil at the world's only ballet school for blind ballerinas.
"Diversity is not just having people present; diversity is actually doing something about it," she says. "I can't just be present in a room because I have things that need to be done but I am part of that shared responsibility. During the years, I have also learned to bring what I need to the table and that's part of my professionalism."
Houbolt says it's rare to see a play like Emilia, which walks its talk by making it part of the fabric of the production itself. "It is a really valuable space to hold and we need that representation and we need to guide it because we're always in jeopardy of the higher paid and the more important roles slipping away," she says. "We need to continue to work together to make sure that that doesn't happen."
McDowell has told the cast that they bring with them their ancestors, building on the accomplishments of women who went before them but also easing the way for women in the future.
"I think it's a Māori thing anyway; you get an opportunity so you bring people with you and it's an opportunity to upskill so, for me, that's the most significant part of the project … there are so many obstacles for women, especially for women of colour, leading."
Emilia is at Pop-up Globe from March 4-22. It holds a parents and babies performance of Emilia on Sunday, March 8 at 2pm. When it closes, Pop-up Globe pulls down its scaffold theatre, a replica of Shakespeare's second Globe theatre, to head overseas.