IN HER decades-long career, actress Clare Perkins has never experienced an audience reaction quite as extraordinary as when she starred in Emilia at the Globe last summer. Playing Elizabethan writer Emilia Bassano, she has an electrifying monologue about female rage, which did more than bring the house down. ‘You’d come out and you’d have women talking to you who seemed stunned — or they were lost for words, or crying,’ says Clare.
Now there may be more tears, as Emilia transfers to the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre. It is a deliberately fanciful bio-drama about the woman thought to be Britain’s first published female poet, but who has been all but forgotten — until now. Her legacy amounts to just one volume of work, which begs the question: ‘What were her other writings, and where did they go?,’ as Clare points out.
In playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s mischievous imagining, not only is Emilia Shakespeare’s Dark Lady muse, but the Bard plagiarises her words in his plays. It’s a provocation made more powerful by the all-women cast and production team. Three actresses take on the title role, with Clare playing Emilia in her oldest incarnation.
Emilia has inevitably been seen as the play for our #MeToo era. But Clare thinks it’s important that it reminds us what such a movement owes to history. ‘It annoys me sometimes when people act like the feminist struggle is all coming to the forefront now. It’s not all about #MeToo.’ What is it like to work without male interference?
Clare is wary of making sweeping generalisations. ‘It’s not like we’re in paradise, because sometimes we’re not sisters. Sometimes we’re bitches to each other… but I think overall there is a tremendous feeling of sisterhood.’
As a child in south London, Clare originally had her heart set on being Judy Garland, she says, only to accept that she’d have to act instead. Her primary school headmaster, Mr Eldridge, said, ‘You will, because you’ve got stars in your eyes.’
She trained at Rose Bruford College, but left before finishing her degree when a theatre job came up. ‘In those days you needed an equity card, but most theatre companies only had two to give away each year, so it was really hard to be a professional actor. So I thought ‘‘equity card or acting diploma?” I went for the card and it worked out really well because I worked non-stop for the first four years of my career.’
She has made films with directors such as Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, and had regular roles in soaps Family Affairs and EastEnders. But it is on stage where she has really shone. Last year, she starred in the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Pulitzer-prize winning drama Sweat, a devastating account of the racial and class tensions in modern America.
Clare played a factory worker promoted to a managerial position and turned on by her former colleagues. It’s also transferring to the West End this summer but, as the run clashes with Emilia, Clare won’t be appearing in it. While she is ‘gutted’ she is glad that more, especially younger people, will get to see the play. ‘Maybe, after watching it, the next time they hear that there’s a rail strike, they might not just go “Oh God, bloody hell, why are they striking?” they might try to find out the reasons for that strike’.
Clare doesn’t know what’s next for her after Emilia, but she’d like to take on new challenges. She mentions voicing a cartoon character and starring in a videogame. ‘I’ve always felt like I’ll be acting until I’m a very old lady. So, yeah, bring it on.’
■ Emilia is at the Vaudeville Theatre from today until June 15, nimaxtheatres.com