Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight

Tue 11th – Sat 15th February 2014

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David McShane

at 03:11 on 12th Feb 2014

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This is your first chance (in Europe) to see Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight. I suggest you take it. Production aside, Lauren Gunderson’s play is wonderfully theatrical, intelligent and full of warmth. It develops a unique narrative artifice to tell Émilie's story, which is that of a woman scholar in the Eighteenth Century. Émilie is presented to us post-death, reflecting on her life as though it were a lesson or equation to be cracked. She narrates as her younger self navigates her growth from convention-trapped youth into an internationally recognised scholar. From this, much of the play’s comedy and wit arises. Gunderson has Émilie's ferocious intellect dominate as she explores being a victim of intellectual doubt rather than circumstance, questioning both love and philosophy. The play itself becomes an inspiring love-letter to Émilie, whilst thematically it capitalizes on an age where science and theatre were more indistinct than they are today.

Émilie (Helen Taylor) is on stage for the full time - including the interval - and she is played with spark, wit and an energy which carried the performance. This was particularly impressive throughout the second half, where short successive and witty scenes were matched by tight emotional explorations of the depth of Emilie as a woman, not just a scholar. This shone through in the moments between her daughter (Sara-Jayne Slack) and Voltaire (Nick Quaterley).

The rest of the ensemble matched Taylor’s leading performance. Voltaire was presented as a convincing cad-cum-genius, with a charming vivaciousness, whilst the metamorphosis of each cast member into the various players in Émilie's life was crisp and believable, avoiding any potential confusion. This was supported by simple direction which clearly and effectively sifted through the multiple layers of place and time, abstract or otherwise.

The thoroughness of the direction became particularly apparent where the play demanded lines to be spoken by multiples of Émilie in tandem. Here it was here the most powerful moments were felt: Émilie behind Émilie; the staging reflecting the content. Lighting was used equally well to segment or open up space, but moments it seemed slightly mistimed, as did sound. Part of the dramatic effect of the play is dependent upon a cracking reset-button, plunging the space into darkness when Emilie refuses to obey the laws of her momentary universe. This crackling was occasionally too quiet to achieve full effect, whilst in these moments the rapidity of changeover slowed and slightly stilted the action. Although, this is a minor quibble in what was, overall, a very smooth production.

Whether to be inspired by an original mind or play, this solid production is a befitting premier of Gunderson’s impeccably crafted homage to Émilie: a woman who exceeds her time both in legacy and inspiration.

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