Arts / Wil, his mistress and lots to argue about

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Kirsty Budding as Shakespeare’s lover Emilia. Photo by Janelle McMenamin

INFORMATION about the real life of William Shakespeare is very sketchy but a new play written in Canberra has a go at filling in the details.

“Shakespeare and his Mistress“ by Paul Kauffmann, puts forward the idea that the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets, far from being a literary construct, was a real woman, Emilia Bassano Lanier, London sophisticate, the first named female poet in the English language, proto-feminist and, until recent times, seriously overlooked.

Small matter that arguments about this theory still rage in academia.

“I don’t really care if it’s true,” says director Cate Clelland, engaged by Kauffmann in November to bring his ideas to life.

The play, which involves four characters only – “really only one-third of a play,” Clelland says – is built around the idea that “Wil”, The Bard of Avon, had a muse or a significant “other” in his creative process just as he was about to go really big in the London theatre scene.

Constructed in straight narrative form, the play begins as Shakespeare, aged 28, is about to embark on “Romeo and Juliet”.

Kirsty Budding as Shakespeare’s lover Emilia and David Pearson as Wil. Photo by Janelle McMenamin

It’s billed as a play with music but it’s definitely not a musical, she says. Rather it is interspersed with original compositions by former “CityNews” Artist of the Year, David Pereira. When we catch up with Clelland and Kauffmann, Pereira has already put pen to 25 pages of music, some of it in the traditional idiom, some new songs and one where Clelland didn’t like the earlier music.

As the title “Shakespeare and his Mistress” suggests, there is some sexual frisson in the play, which dramatises a passionate series of encounters between Shakespeare and the 23-year-old lady with the Mediterranean good looks who had from age 18 been the mistress of Baron Henry Carey, first cousin of Elizabeth I.

Musical theatre notable David Pearson, who plays Wil, would prefer the play be called “Wil and Emilia” and Clelland likes “Emilia and Wil”, but Kauffmann believes the word “mistress” will appeal to the public.

Canberra producer Kirsty Budding plays Emilia, the cosmopolitan who knew more about the court and Europe than Shakespeare and whose proficiency in languages might have helped make up the shortfall described by Ben Jonson when he claimed Shakespeare had small Latin and less Greek”.

Clelland doesn’t care much about this, but Kauffmann does and has written several academic papers trying to explain how a boy from a backwater called Stratford-upon-Avon could have encompassed the historical, political and intellectual worlds of his age – he’ll deliver a prologue explaining the context.

The supporting actors are Brendan Kelly, playing the young Harry, Earl of Southampton, in whose house the play begins and Sarah Hull, who plays Emilia’s chaperone, Lady Margaret Clifford. The plot develops with encounters between the four protagonists and a rip-roaring row between Wil and Emelia when she finds out that he is married. Mind you, at that time she was also married, so Clelland has been talking to the cast about double standards.

By coincidence, a play called simply “Emilia”, commissioned by The Globe from playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, opened at The Globe Theatre in London last month and is still running there. That’s a very different take, a white-hot tribute to England’s neglected female poet, who, in the play, accuses the audience and the world of stripping her of her voice.

But “Shakespeare and his Mistress”, by contrast, is bursting with romance and suggestions of English history are helped by costumes loaned by the production’s dance instructors John and Aylwen Gardiner-Garden of “Earthly Delights,” who own a considerable collection of Renaissance costumes.

Clelland will stage the production in the ANU School of Music’s Big Band Room. She believes that the substance of the play could be considerably developed, but hopes this 80-minute iteration will leave audiences wondering what happens next.

They won’t have to wait long. Kauffmann says he has six more plays on the go already.

“Shakespeare and his Mistress”, Big Band Room, ANU School of Music, 8pm, Fridays and Saturdays, September 21 to 29, bookings to or 6247 4222.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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