A puzzling play performed with intelligence and gusto, this production of Emilia Galotti makes a very worthwhile contribution to eighteenth-century studies by bringing the ‘Sturm und Drang’ of the Enlightenment stage to life. First performed in Brunswick in 1772, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s play both suffers from and is simultaneously enlivened by its mercurial characterisation and political satire. The effect is something brilliant and complex; vague and disorientating.
Lessing’s five act tragedy, held in high regard in his native Germany, is comparatively little known and has rarely been performed in the UK. Ottisdotter Production’s second staging of the play at The Space makes a fine and spirited attempt to wrestle with a work which is as much a piece of dramaturgy as it is drama. The play is experimental and deliberately challenging in its attempt to bring the full scope of human emotion to the stage. Its characters are on edge; they laugh and cry, shout and bluster, and speak with passion and frankness that would surely have caused a stir with Lessing’s eighteenth-century audience.
Ottisdotter’s mission is to revive ‘obscure plays with dimensions that emphasise the roles of women in society’. All three women in the cast – Emilia (Grace Monroe), Claudia (Lucy Pickles) and Countess Orsina (Francesca Burgoyne) are acted with energy and skill. The modest venue, plain set and costumes are a fitting backdrop to a drama which relies on the claustrophobia of its domestic setting, and on a series of concentrated encounters through which its tragedy unfolds.
Within a small cast, the Prince (played by the talented Che Watson) is perhaps the central figure, whose pivotal intervention in the life of Emilia Galotti and her family drives the play’s action. The play concerns the fate of the middle-class Galotti family, whose beautiful daughter, already betrothed to the beloved Count Appiani, unwittingly draws the attention of the tyrannical Prince. His unrequited attraction to the virginal Emilia, and his ignorant and misguided attempts to clear the path to their matrimony, are catalysts for a chain of reactions that implicate him in her tragedy. A dastardly advisor, Marinelli, is the perfect foil for the Prince’s naïve arrogance and temper tantrums, smoothly manipulating the Prince’s various petitioners whilst studiously keeping his own head above water. The cast is rounded out by Emilia’s irascible father, over-indulgent mother, and the Prince’s jilted mistress.
However the play might look on the page, these are not caricatures but complex and complexly-motivated individuals whose inner lives are hinted at if not always brought fully to fruition by the swift and erratic passing of emotions on their faces and in their speech. The rather terse language of the play keeps things moving but makes little time for rumination: soliloquys are brief and to the point, and there’s little chance of any of the characters waxing lyrical. The loving parents Claudia and Eduardo Galotti seem one minute to be fondly doting, the next minute fearful and wary of each other. Count Appiani, Emilia’s true love and perhaps the most likeable of the bunch, is nevertheless sullen and hot-tempered in equal parts. Even the Prince’s motives are confused by his constantly changing mood and manner: certainly the final catastrophe is not of his design, though his callousness and abuse of power have led the play to this climax.
What of Emilia herself? Her feelings are as inscrutable as those of her suitors. On the one hand she is depicted as fiercely resolute, inspired by religion and by a fixed sense of self. Her love for the Count is ardent. She is eloquent and has the ability to influence both her father and the Prince himself. Despite this, she is confined by both familial and societal expectations, and has little chance of escaping the fate dealt to her by the men around her. Grace Monroe captures beautifully the precariousness of her situation, using Lessing’s words to bring out the pressing conflicts between thoughts and actions, motives and behaviours which are constantly scrutinised by the play’s women and policed by its men. If, as her mother counsels her, good actions rely on good intentions, then Emilia’s frank admissions of her darkest thoughts, fears and temptations expose her in her own mind to the charge of immorality and sin. The fraught religious contexts of the play, central to Emilia’s character, are left as open to interpretation and critique as its political message about the role of women in a dystopian world.
Innovative in its depiction of bourgeois life, the play draws markedly on Classical and Renaissance traditions, with echoes of Shakespeare as well as something of the concentrated construction of Racine and Corneille’s classical tragedies. The chaotic characterisation and complex psychologies of the protagonists are thrown into relief by the classical structure and the simplicity of plot, based loosely on Livy’s story of Verginia. The play spoke to immediate concerns of the German middle classes in its depiction of a wanton and destructive aristocracy whose actions are products not only of tyranny and greed but also of boredom, a desire for instant gratification and self-preservation.
In Sławomir Mrozek’s Tango (1964), an absurdist take on Hamlet, the Czech playwright marks his bourgeois characters’ descent into banality with a knowing meta-theatrical commentary: “Tragedy’s impossible these days. All that’s left is farce.” The characters in Emilia Galotti suffer from much the same fate, yet here the playwright leaves the audience dislocated in the face of a tragedy which seems to provoke as much laughter and bewilderment as it does fear and trembling. In many ways the play is crying out for a narrator, or at least a hero: someone to whom we can attach ourselves as the plot moves relentlessly towards its shocking and – most shockingly of all – entirely avoidable ending.
This is a play that deserves to be seen, though it leaves its audience puzzled and dazed. Lessing’s experimental commitment to his characters’ psychological depth may go awry at moments, but the drama as a whole is compelling and this sensitive production is faithful to his dramatic principles. Ottisdotter’s vision for the play represents an intriguing and nuanced insight into the world of the eighteenth-century stage.
Emilia Galotti is at the The Space Theatre, Isle of Dogs, London, E14 3RS until Saturday 14th of May.