By Danielle Farrow
In exploring what is available to a girl and then young woman in regard to acting, with a focus on playing Shakespeare, Emma Bentley offers an entertaining gender comparison piece that touches on sexism in life in general as well as being fairly revealing of the performer herself, including her acting strengths and weaknesses. This is brave work, and very topical – the gender imbalance in performance, where even contemporary new work continues to provide far less quantity and quality of roles for women compared to those for men, needs continued and increased attention, as does the often subtle sexism of our society. Bentley uses lightness of touch, engaging humour and mannerisms in telling this story, gaining her audience’s interest in her character and in these difficulties facing actresses / women.
Shakespeare, particularly Hamlet, features throughout and there are amusing asides and points which start recognisably – and famously – as Shakespeare’s, but end as different, modern and natural sentences of Bentley’s own – good hooks to bait the audience withal. A few changes of clothes in a basket, a record and record player, a bottle of water, a spot of technology, and some cards only used while the audience enters, suffice to serve her production, and most of what is presented is believable. There is at least one false ending, confessional and speaking much of the message of the piece, which over-weights the balance somewhat after less direct references within the story told. Another ending reflects Elizabethan theatre practices in having a dance, but her rendition of ‘The wind and the rain’ from Twelfth Night does not seem to add anything beyond a potentially apt reference to being a ‘boy’.
Bentley’s expressions are amusing and there are moments of gravity and of serious thought under the humour which change the overall feel and pace of the piece, but not all of those work as strongly as they could, despite real connection when an audition goes badly. The piece might be strengthened by having its passionate message woven more evenly through its story, and this young performer would benefit from developing her vocal and physical range further – though she did well embodying a callow youth in which she was interested – but, as Bentley would be the first to tell you, for this ‘there’s still time’!
To She or Not to She reacts against Shakespeare’s ‘frailty, thy name is woman’, examines through the experiences of an actress aspects of what being a woman means in today’s Western society and holds out hope for what women can make of this in future. It takes great daring to create and present a solo show, and Bentley engages with humour and a confiding manner. It is entertaining and may stimulate ideas, with a performer who will hopefully go on to widen and deepen her presentation – relying a little less on winsomeness, perhaps – and thus flesh out further the importance of what she has to say.