Emma, Lady Hamilton, is a creature of historical mythology, best known for her illicit association with military hero Lord Nelson.
Portrayed on screen memorably by Vivien Leigh in That Hamilton Woman (1941) and Glenda Jackson in Bequest of the Nation (1973), she is either portrayed as a woman of great physical beauty or fierce intelligence – sometimes both.
In April de Angelis’s new play, Infamous, she is played by real-life mother and daughter Caroline and Rose Quentin. The first act takes place in Naples, Italy, in the sight of Mount Vesuvius; the second some years later in Calais, France.
In Rose Quentin’s version of Emma, she is sharp yet silly, arrogant, and adversarial. Her mother (Caroline Quentin) foretells disaster in her future, with Emma’s past as whore and serial mistress not being the only family secret.
Regardless, Emma welcomes home the conquering hero despite his shortcomings – lost teeth, eye, arm – and nurses him back to health with her elderly husband’s tacit approval.
By the second act, Emma and the discarded daughter of Nelson live in penury, renting a barn and going hungry. Caroline Quentin’s Emma is pitiful but still passionate, a drunk but still retaining a deep-seated resilience and bloom.
Although Infamous is intriguing and the two Quentins play well off each other, I wanted more from the plot. We don’t see Sir William Hamilton or Lord Nelson; the only men in the play are an Italian servant smitten with Emma and a French peasant risen into power, both played by an underused Riad Ritchie.
The set (by Fotini Dimou) changes from a Napelese drawing room to rural wood panelling in act two, an interesting transformation as we watch. The lighting (by Christopher Nairne) hones in to spotlight characters or pin out sparkles in a shawl, which survives good times and bad.
Infamous is a subtle play in many ways, but Emma is hard to like in either version, cruel and heartless when young, weighed down by the past and rather pathetic in middle age.
The plot has comments to make about familial relationships, sometimes quite pointed, and it is interesting to see a real family dynamic behind it all, as well as a genuine physical resemblance between the two actors.
The 17-year gap between acts one and two stretches credulity in some ways but if you consider the historical Emma was 32 when she met Nelson and 49 at her death from addiction, hardship and disappointment, it makes more sense.
Directed by Michael Oakley, this play could stand a bit more broad humour to showcase Quentin senior’s comic gifts and a more raucous turn of phrase throughout. After all, both Emma and her mother are tough women used to hard lives and sexual exploitation.
I also wanted to know more about the daughter Emma had to leave behind (a fascinating tale unfolds here) and why she had to keep secrets about Horatia (nicely played by Quentin junior) for so long.
Infamous continues its world premiere at Jermyn Street Theatre until 7 Oct with details here.
Image credit: Steve Gregson