Emilia Galotti, The Space Arts Centre - Review

Outside of Schiller and Goethe, German playwrights (from pre-20th century) don't tend to receive as much coverage on the UK stage as they could do. Bearing this in mind, theatre company Ottisdotter have taken the inspired step of producing the 18th century tragedy by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing,  Emilia Galotti.

While Emilia (Grace Monroe) isn't on stage for large swathes of the play, her importance to the rest of the characters drives the story forwards, almost always the main topic of conversation. Having briefly met Emilia once, the Prince (Che Watson) is rather taken with her and at the beginning of the play purchases her portrait. Upon hearing from his trusted adviser Marinelli (Andrew Nance) that she's to be married later that day, the Prince is greatly distressed. Marinelli takes it upon himself to indirectly intervene, but things don't go according to plan, leading to an unfortunate chain of events for all concerned...

As Emila's mother, Claudia, Lucy Pickles is neither meek nor mild, vehemently protective of her daughter and savvy enough to see the true ramifications of events in the latter half of the play. Meanwhile, Peter Wheal-Jones as her husband Eduardo Galotti exhibits a pomposity that leaves little room for calm, rational dialogue. Still, Countess Orsina (Francesca Burgoyne), the jilted ex-mistress of the Prince manages to cut through his bluster and win him over to her side in sympathy, if not in action. Of all the female roles in this play, Burgoyne's Orsina is the most vivid, showing an array of emotions from jealousy, indignation, disbelief and calculated revenge.

In some ways Orsina is a mirror image to Marinelli. Both are complicated individuals who are acutely aware of what each are capable of doing – especially with their respective powers of persuasion and manipulation – and  as a consequence wary of each other. One wonders if they had a relationship in the past before things soured between them, much akin to Morgan Le Fey and Merlin in Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur.

While at one level the play is about the aristocracy at the time abusing their power, using undue leverage on the middle classes, on a more relevant note (at least to modern audiences), it is about the objectification of a young woman whose existence is susceptible to the whims and machinations of society, as well as her own parents. In the play most people erroneously think of Emilia as a placid, submissive personality, but as the events in the latter half of the play show, not immediately raising objections doesn't equate to acquiescence...

© Michael Davis 2016

Emilia Galotti runs at The Space Arts Centre, London E14 until 14th May 2016.

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