Q Theatre Loft, 305 Queen St, Auckland

19/09/2023 - 23/09/2023

Production Details

Sophie Lindsay: Writer, Director and Composer
Peau Halapua: Music Director

Presented by: Sophie Lindsay

Written, directed and with music composed by Sophie Lindsay, ÉMILIE is the world premiere of
a high-energy comedy-drama about a remarkable and mostly forgotten scientist, and her great love, Voltaire.

Featuring some of New Zealand’s best acting talent, with an original soundtrack performed live by classical musicians Peau Halapua and Sarah Spence, ÉMILIE plays for a limited season at Auckland’s Q Theatre, 19 – 23 September 2023.

Paris, summer 1733. Émilie’s work has stalled and she can’t face another social event in the gossip-fuelled capital. Little does she know she is about to fall in love with a famous poet. Little does he know, he is about to meet his intellectual match – an extraordinary woman, a scientist, who will change his life forever. We invite you to step into 18th-century France, where everyone has (and should know) their place…

Q Theatre – LOFT / 19 – 23 September 2023

$39 – $45 (plus service fees)

19 – 23 September 2023
Tue 19 Sep, 7:30pm – 9pm
Wed 20 Sep, 7:30pm – 9pm
Thu 21 Sep, 7:30pm – 9pm
Fri 22 Sep, 7:30pm – 9pm
Sat 23 Sep, 2:30pm – 4pm
Sat 23 Sep, 7:30pm – 9pm

Nati Pereira: Set, Costume and Props Designer
D. Andrew Potvin: Producer and Lighting Designer
Gustavo Garcia: Graphic Designer

Beth Alexander: Émilie
Justin Rogers: Voltaire
Bronwyn Ensor: Marie, Lady 1
Clementine Mills: Isabelle, Lady 2
Peau Halapua: Violinist
Sarah Spence: Cellist

Theatre ,

90 minutes, no interval

A sweet, delightful, funny and expertly crafted tribute

Review by Genevieve McClean 21st Sep 2023

The Age of Enlightenment: The awakening of intellectual and scientific thought!  Physics, maths, and cosmology! The questioning of religious intolerance! The uplifting of poetry and the importance of experiment! And for the nobility in Europe, the education of girls.

It was fitting to see the premiere of Sophie Lindsay’s play Émilie on Suffrage Day in New Zealand, not to mention within a month of a general election, at a time when leaders (and it is hoped everyone else) are debating matters of importance.

Equality between men and women is a central theme to the story of Émilie, as it was an emergence of the time, and it would be remiss of me not to say at least once that the issue is not yet, three hundred years later, resolved. Trauma and death by childbirth is hardly resolved. Slavery and restrictive religious dogma are not resolved. Capitalism and necessary exploitation of resources for power is, to say the least, not resolved, but what we can say is that there are scientific facts and equations that have by due process been solved and proved, thanks to certain individuals and their exact calculating methods. 

Voltaire became famous and well known for literary endeavours, writing on philosophical concepts such as power and who deserves it, and for being a thorn of disruption in the side of the Catholic church. In the public mind, Voltaire epitomises the nobility of The Enlightenment as absolute privilege being turned in on itself and ultimately the intellectual disruption of this time was seen as a precursor to the French Revolution. 

Inequality meant a lot when, at the time, half of all children died before the age of 10 and life expectancy generally averaged at 25. Certainly, life expectancy of the nobility may have altered in its average age by the end of the century, when culling the nobility became the trend. To what extent Voltaire’s reputation might have been gained on behalf of the super-clever daughter of a French nobleman who believed in offering her the best education possible, we may never know. Émilie’s absent husband allowing her to manage her own affairs was also a permissive transgression that was almost unthinkable, except by the very rich and avant-garde of the time. 

Bringing the women out from behind Voltaire’s long shadow is almost as exciting as making scientific discovery itself. Who were all these women?  Look at them all: maidservants, wetnurses, gossips, and socialites of the highbrow of France and Europe; a network of women and an allowance for permissions of social transgression. Although it was fashionable in England to be educated and hide one’s education in order to marry (if you were a woman), in France it was more of an accoutrement to the pursuits of love and marriage to follow the intellect as well as the heart. 

Balls, gowns, sex, money, coffee, telescopes …  The second estate in France before 1789 were educated, and didn’t work. They were largely exempt from paying taxes and had absolute privilege over positions in the military, courts, church, and some members of the aristocracy also held seigneurial rights of proprietorship over produce, such as bread, olives, grapes etc.

Sophie Lindsay’s play avoids the wider sphere of capitalism and revolution to come, and dwells in sumptuous pre-revolutionary France where being out in public induces the two-faced gossip of ‘ladies’, but alternatively paints the private world of Émilie as relatively staid by comparison.  The industry of attainment of knowledge and children, and lovers, is not a frilly frothy sumptuous world but one of perfunctory scientific exploration on the stage.

Lindsay uses her musical knowledge to create a stage performance that emulates the vignettes, motifs and refrains that will be familiar to lovers of Baroque music.  The accompaniment to the entire play is upheld by her own pre-recorded piano as well as the accomplished Peau Halapula and Sarah Spence, who play a mesmerizing and commanding violin and cello accompaniment that gives a musical structure to the whole theatrical work.

As such, the play often operates like a dance. A ‘rondeau’ perhaps, at times? The baroque qualities inform the theatricality, with strictly managed freezes in the flow, which makes for a comprehensive choreography from which the more earnest and psychological chapters of Émilie’s life emerge. Hilarious Marivaux-style French farce is provided by Bronwyn Ensor and Clementine Mills who are delightful, both playing various roles (I won’t go into the story, so as to leave it fresh for you to discover) and great pleasure is derived from the familiar preparation to their comic interludes. 

In keeping with the gravitational pull of the spheres, all the movement is graceful and persistent, but by contrast the characters of Émilie and Voltaire are earnest in love. It’s very much a discourse of the mind. The script cleverly brings their story to light through its wordcraft, while the human action on stage, for me, is reminiscent of the floating mechanical stagecraft of olde worlde proscenium theatre. Voltaire leaning awkward on his cane, a dance partner, provider of certain necessities: “Have you enough firewood?” he intones remotely, in a spoken letter from a distant city. He is functional, as he is offering his body as chair or pillow to the Marquise as she retires or works. 

Justin Rogers’ Voltaire is diminished of greatness, his ego pared back to that of a generic boy who can’t help submitting to a kind of servitude to the Marquise. In turn the Marquise, is also pared back: The women, by 18th Century standards, are undressed, their ease of movement and freedom in their bodies almost modern, and therefore theatrically intimate and relatable.  The stage is minimalist with a continuous lighting state adding to the feeling of it being a dance floor on which the action unfolds (with a chiaroscuro in the shadows at the periphery for the visible mechanisms of the action).

Beth Alexander gives a performance of easy readiness and stability. Her Émilie is a woman before her time, capable and in quiet control of the rest of the action which seems therefore to orbit smoothly and calmly. I can’t help but wonder if this play is a personal response to the historical part of a 2009 work by New York based playwright Karen Zacharias, Legacy of Light, which also explores the Émilie and Voltaire story. Here, Émilie is less sensual or comedic, the craft of her character spans the three hundred years between us and her, and places the essential part of her practical desires at her desk, writing. This is a universal trope, familiar to modern women here in New Zealand, or anywhere.

Lindsay’s Émilie is a sweet, delightful, funny and expertly crafted tribute to a woman who was able to assert her authority on the world by reaching for a pinnacle of acclaim in the era of enlightenment by the measure of light itself, amongst other achievements. Her attributed work in physics is considerable. However, the leverage of this story is in the hidden nature of that which remains unattributed by the Marquise du Châtelet and other women throughout history; women who have contributed to science or inspired others but remain obscured by the very same social structures which, at the time of early 18th century France, enabled the nobility to develop those freedoms. It’s a conundrum it seems we will need to consider now, and into the future.


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