Independent theatre collaborates with Arts Centre to bring a West End smash hit to Melbourne

Kaylah Joelle Baker

After hearing the final speech of the West End play EMILIA on a podcast, co-artistic director of Geelong’s Essential Theatre Amanda LaBonté knew she had to bring the play to Victoria for the theatre’s 20th anniversary. 

As a female-led independent theatre, the play spoke into everything Amanda LaBonté and fellow co-artistic director, Sophie Lampel, stood for and they knew they needed to get their hands on it. 

“We were really wanting to mark the year with something momentous and as female producers that focus on Shakespeare’s work, we have always looked at gender balance and looked at Shakespeare through a female lens, and EMILIA just seemed to tick every box,” Ms LaBonté said. “We decided to go the more modern way [of contacting British playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm], and tweeted her to introduce ourselves, then within half an hour she got back to us and said, ‘let’s chat’.” 

“She saw that we approached work very similarly to her, that we were doing it for the right reasons and that the play aligned with who we were and what we stood for.”

Understanding the magnitude of bringing a three-time Oliver award-winning stage show to Victoria, Ms LaBonté and Ms Lampel brought on two additional co-producers Darylin Ramondo and Sonya Suares, and joint forces with Arts Centre Melbourne and Geelong Arts Centre. 

“We could not be doing this without our two commissioning partners, and their support, confidence and faith in an independent theatre company has been really warming and overwhelming,” Ms LaBonté said.

Created during the middle of the #MeToo era, EMILIA was inspired by 17th century poet and revolutionist Emilia Bassano who is known as one of the first women to be published as a professional poet.

Emilia was also often deemed the supposed “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but for Ms LaBonté it was Emilia’s ability to never take no for an answer that speaks volumes.

“We are all faced with adversity in our lives in a variety of ways, but instead of whingeing about the problems she faced, Emilia just found a way to continue and make a change, and we can all aspire to be more like that because I think it is really easy to just complain but she didn’t,” Ms LaBonté said.

“She just weaved her way through the world, in a world that didn’t respect women as writers, and particularly women of colour as writers at that point in time.”

EMILIA is a mix of comedy and fury, and tackles topics of love, loss, identity, ambition, power and rebellion.

The play is also performed by a team made up entirely of women and non-binary creatives from diverse cultural backgrounds, something Essential Theatre directors and producers regard as “exciting” and “extraordinary”. 

“This play is not only diverse in the involvement of women of all ethnicities, but of ability as well. Having women of all ages, shapes, sizes, abilities and ethnicities on the one stage is really exciting and unique,” Ms LaBonté said. 

The Australian debut of EMILIA is set for November 10 and will be at the Arts Centre Melbourne until November 27. •

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