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Theatre Review: Émilie is an elegant piece of theatre

You may not have heard of Émilie, La Marquise du Châtelet. She lived in 18th Century France and made considerable contribution to mathematics and physics. As with many women in history, her brilliance and accomplishments were overlooked and attributed to others. What is often remembered is her long relationship with French writer and philosopher Voltaire.

In the play Émilie, writer Sophie Lindsay has created a sophisticated retelling of Émilie’s life and her passionate history with Voltaire. 

It is clear from the beginning that Émilie (Beth Alexander) is not your average Parisian woman. For one, she is educated, and rather than being swept up in courtly intrigue and fashion, her fervent interest in science and mathematics means she is constantly reading and theorising. 

Although married to a nobleman, the couple have an open relationship and so, when she meets Voltaire (Justin Rogers) their mutual attraction leads to an intense affair that lasts many years. Over the duration of the play, we see the development of both their relationship, and the contributions they made to science. 

At the heart of the action is the love story between two very intelligent people who share a fascination with the natural world and its observation. 

Alexander and Rogers have a natural charisma and chemistry with one another and their dialogue is enhanced with flawlessly delivered little glances, fulsome smiles and slight touches which ensures the relationship feels tangible and intimate. 

Émilie is ably assisted by her maid Marie (Bronwyn Ensor), and both Émilie and Voltaire have a mutual friend Isabelle (Clementine Mills) who is the one responsible for bringing the two lovers together. 

Ensor and Mills also play ladies from court and as such provide an opportunity to fill in plot details and act as a metaphor for the disdain court society had for learned woman. In their dual roles, both actors provide wonderful moments of hilarity and at times drama.

Complementing both the script and the cast are the design elements and music. On stage were two accomplished musicians, violinist Peau Halapua and cellist Sarah Spence who provided most of the music. There was beautifully recorded piano at times which was played by Sophie Lindsay, but having Halapua and Spence’s exquisite live performance gave this production a sophistication and atmosphere that was heavenly. 

The set by Nati Pereira was very simple, yet elegant. Three long strips of embroidered fabric hung down on three sides and a wooden writing desk and some chairs were the only furniture. The costuming was again simple but in keeping with the era. I was also impressed with two or three moments of choreographed montages to music which illustrated the passing of time. It’s the kind of thing we’ve seen in movies and in this play it was a clever and delightful addition.

Émilie is an intriguing and beguiling play that unfolds its story in a gentle and tender way. Rich in humour and with a social message, this piece of theatre is beautifully written with compelling performances and charming design touches, and thus, it simply shines. 

ÉMILIE

19 – 23 September 2023

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