Daft and riotous, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play on Shakespeare’s “dark lady” is a theatrical firecracker – ★★★★★

Why haven’t we heard of Emilia Bassano? The first female professional poet – considered by some as the Bard’s “secret muse” – has never received a level of attention from theatre audiences, in a sense that is somewhat symptomatic of society at the time. That is, until now.

After a run at Shakespeare’s Globe, Malcolm’s production moves to the Vaudeville Theatre. Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce and Clare Perkins share the title role, and lead a diverse all-female cast, with disabled actresses Sophie Stone and Nadia Albina amongst them.

The creative decision means the women also play the men – with hilarious results. In a time where males were terrified of female success, the cast exaggerate the panic to the point of absurdity. When pompous Lord Howard (Jackie Clune) cries out about the “preposterous notion” of a world where “woman are seen as equal”, the audience cheer and applaud – each member of the crowd united by the same frustration, anger and desire for change.

Amidst this all is the famous bard himself. Portrayed by Charity Wakefield with an eccentric complexity many associate with the acclaimed poet, Shakespeare is a loveable, self-centred jerk in amongst the play’s many sexist men. We hate him for his exploitation of Emilia, but we love him when he proceeds to tell the audience how good his plays are.

It’s one of the many fourth wall breaks across the production. Pants and washing are flung at audience members from the boxes, the cast clamour in the dress circle for a view of the show and at the right time, Perkins’ Emilia preaches to us all. Meanwhile, a group of strong female musicians set the tone with delicate strings and vocal harmonies. The parallels and crossovers between Shakespearean England and the present day are overt and striking – from Elizabethan characters dabbing and flossing on stage to the same female oppression shown on stage ringing true all these years later.

Each iteration of Emilia has their own moment on stage. Coomber’s reaction to the loss of her child is devastating, Leonce’s monologue about grief is impactful, and Perkins’ delivery of the epilogue – a message to modern women – is fiery, rousing and rapturous. Cutting into a timely issue with razor-sharp precision, Emilia is a raging call to arms for the feminists of today.

Emilia is now playing at the Vaudeville Theatre until 1 June.