This review was originally written for A Younger Theatre
Lessing’s Emilia Galotti is a prime example of bürgerliches trauerspiel apparently, an 18th Century dramatic movement that was popular in England – where it became known as bourgeois tragedy – but that particularly flourished in Germany. This style of drama treated the rising middle-classes seriously for the first time, marking ordinary people as the focus of tragedies, hitherto the reserve of noblemen. Something of the social relevance of Emilia Galotti is lost in the 21st Century, but it remains a snide middle-finger to male chauvinism and is still a thrilling story of love, lust, jealousy and murder.
In Mark Ewbank’s traverse production at The Space, which uses a crisp, accessible adaptation of a 19th Century translation, Grace Monroe is the virtuous, sweet-natured young woman of the title, betrothed to the doting Count Appiani (Ivan Comisso), a well-to-do nobleman out of love with court. Che Watson is Hettore, the womanising Prince infatuated with said Emilia and determined to wrest her from her fiancé. Andrew Nance is Marinelli, the Machiavellian chamberlain tasked with delivering her to the Prince’s salon, unaccompanied. In five acts, Marinelli and the Prince callously dismantle Emilia’s life to their own advantage, manoeuvring her and her family into an impossible impasse, from where drastic action seems the only option.
The young cast excel. Watson is an ideal Prince, endlessly self-serving as he moves from despair at the news of Emilia’s engagement, to determined cunning when Marinelli outlines his plan to prevent it, to horribly smirking self-satisfaction when he finally has her in his clutches. Nance’s Marinelli is a classic villain, hiding his contempt and cruelty behind a condescending veneer of politeness. When he is outwitted by Francesca Burgoyne’s charmingly sardonic Countess Orsina, a former lover of the Prince, in an engrossingly sharp back-and-forth, his mask slips to reveal the weak-chinned gynophobe underneath. Elsewhere, Monroe’s Emilia is appropriately timid and Peter Wheal-Jones is an enjoyably gruff as Emilia’s proud father.
It’s possible to see shades of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in Lessing’s play, which prefigures Laclos’ epistolary novel by a decade. The remorseless seduction of an innocent young woman, the heady mixture of desperate lust and intolerable guilt, and towering principles being traded like chess pieces – all combine, like they do in Liaisons to form a riveting cocktail as emotionally engaging as it is intellectually stimulating. There’s even a shadow of Josie Rourke’s recent Donmar Warehouse production of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Liaisons in Emilia Galotti’s design, and particularly in the frantic chamber music that accompanies each scene change.
Lessing’s time, the rising bourgeoisie’s emphasis on love as an essential component in marriage, as opposed to advantage, was something of a radical social shift. Nowadays, love is largely the only factor worth considering, but although some of the motives that drive the tragedy of Emilia Galotti are accordingly alien to us, there is still something elemental in Lessing’s opposition of love and lust, of principle and desire, of life and death, which is well realised in Ewbank’s production.