The tagline for her one-woman show To She Or Not To She is “Get stuffed, Will!”, but Emma Bentley is a lifelong Shakespeare fan with a fresh – and funny – feminist message

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Writer and actor Emma Bentley plays a parodic version of herself in one-woman show To She Or Not To She, beginning at 14 years old when it is announced that the year nine spring term play is going to be Hamlet.

Emma knows she is perfect for the lead role: she grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon, knows all about Shakespeare, and (not to boast or anything) she’s the best actor in the school. Her gender doesn’t occur to her as being a problem, until her drama teacher informs her post-audition that she “just couldn’t see Hamlet as a girl”.

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Bentley says: “I chose Shakespeare because before I went to drama school I thought I knew a lot about him, and then at LIPA [Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts] I realised how much more complex the plays are. So it was a process of finding out for me. I also am not that good at really serious, intense emotional scenes – I prefer comedy.”

Bentley brings her experience in mime and clowning to the excellent caricatures she presents – a particular highlight is Emma’s diva-ish classmate Jimmy Danish, a Cumberbatch wannabe with a swagger and a quiff, who tells her she should audition for Ophelia because “You’d look really cool drowned”.

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The show’s quirky style and close rapport with its audience are key to its appeal. Alongside the laughs, however, comedy proves a useful mechanism for making people think. Walking home from school in the rain, the young Emma mourns her Hamlet-that-might-have-been. Soaked to the skin, it is as if she becomes Ophelia – side-lined as mad for defying the status quo, and ultimately disposed of with very little fuss. The moment prompts us to wonder how many other young potential female Hamlets are turned into Ophelias as early as their first auditions.

To She Or Not To She is part of a recent upsurge in female actors playing male Shakespearean heroes, notably Harriet Walter’s Henry IV (at the Donmar Warehouse) and Maxine Peake’s Hamlet (at the Manchester Royal Exchange), alongside all-female companies like the Smooth-Faced Gentlemen. But for Bentley there is still a long way to go before female actors have access to the same opportunities as their male counterparts.

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“I did see Peake’s Hamlet in the cinema, and people’s reactions around me were, ‘I wasn’t even thinking about the fact she’s a woman!’” she says. “But female actors in leading Shakespearean roles are still really quite rare in this country and I don’t think they get the recognition they deserve. I feel like that’s quite a depressing answer [to your question]! I think things are changing, just not very quickly, which can be frustrating. I would love it if To She Or Not To She was part of a trend of productions that would get things moving faster.”

“Countries like France and Germany are great for taking Shakespeare and mixing things up. Maybe because there is not that sense of it being a traditional part of their culture in same way, so they’re happy to pull it apart and cut out whole scenes, or look at a character a different light. In the UK, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a conscious thing, the weight of tradition can hold people back.”

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Bentley is certainly comfortable pulling Shakespeare apart – as To She Or Not To She follows Emma through drama school and her attempts to forge an acting career, lines from the plays compare her situation with those of male Shakespearean characters, making a convincing case for how relevant they are to her (female) experiences.

Particularly effective towards the end of the play are Bentley’s original lines written in iambic pentameter. She says, “It’s a generalisation, but I think girls can often be more confident in Shakespeare [than with other plays]”.

And it is through Shakespeare’s rhythms and language that Emma can express her desperation for female voices in theatre. What she wants is not just to be allowed to play male roles, but to find female roles that are crazy, drunk, passionate or brave.

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Although it is intrinsically honest, in places the show verges on didactic where it could allow its audience a little more space and time to draw conclusions for themselves, but Bentley is the first to admit that the show is a work in progress.

“The production is constantly changing – the ending especially has changed a lot. At one point it ended with my character getting a job at the Globe, but I felt like I was just making things up as I’ve never actually been lucky enough to work there, so it wasn’t… honest.

“I’ve also cut the jig at the end [a Globe-style song and dance], even though I love doing it, because people fed back that they felt I just needed to leave time for the final scene to resonate, rather than dancing around as if everything’s OK.”

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It might be the influence of the show, but Bentley seems oddly similar to popular conceptions of Shakespeare – humble, self-parodying and often witty. While To She Or Not To She is a serious reflection on sexism in the acting profession, it is also very comfortable exposing (and laughing at) the pretentiousness that often creeps into an actor’s life, with lines like “Did I play Hamlet? Or did Hamlet play me? That is the question”.

Asked which Shakespearean parts she would most like to play, Bentley muses: “I think I’d have to say Hamlet – I know it’s a cliché, but I feel like this is the right moment for me to take on that role. You hear older actors saying they wish they’d done Hamlet, and I feel like if it doesn’t happen for me in the next three years, it probably never will.

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“I’d also like to play Feste – I’ve played him at drama school but would love to do it again. Directors of Twelfth Night tend to see Feste’s as the lines to cut – he’s just talking nonsense, right? – but having played him and realised what he’s saying, I find there’s so much there that really resonates with life today.”

To She Or Not To She is produced by Joue Le Genre and is touring to Broadway Theatre Catford and Arts Theatre Leicester Square in the UK this month.

Go here for more information and tickets.

Pennsylvania’s Gamut Theatre Group christens its new theatre with performance of Twelfth Night

Normally, standing ovations come at the end of a performance, but the opening performance of Gamut Theatre Group’s Twelfth Night was bookended by them.

As co-founders Clark and Melissa Nicholson took the stage to welcome the audience to the new theatre, the crowd erupted into applause, and as the actors returned to bow at the close, the same sound filled the new “cathedral to the arts”.

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It has been a long journey to renovate and reinvent the historic church building into a top notch performance and education space, but one worth the work. Before the move, Gamut had to perform in a rented space in a city shopping mall. Admittedly, they put on great performances there, but the new space holds much more potential – and gives them a permanent home.

Harrisburg, most well known for being the bankrupt capital of the state of Pennsylvania, lacks a strong reputation for the arts. However, many people committed to both the city and to the arts have been working to change that.

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For the past 21 years, Gamut has been working to rejuvenate the city through the power of theatre. Even before the new space, Gamut mounted several shows a year, including educational shows that went on tour to schools around the northeast US, as well as offering classes on Shakespeare performance and education.

This new space will allow them continue and expand upon all their realms of work, with several classroom spaces, along with performance and rehearsal spaces.

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The design of the mainstage pays homage to Early Modern theatre with a wooden thrust stage and facade featuring three entrances as well as a balcony – very reminiscent of the shape of The Globe or Blackfriars. But, looking up doesn’t reveal starlight or candelabras, but a lattice of lighting and sound equipment. It’s a marriage between the past and the present.

Of course, what use is a beautiful theatre without performances to complement it? The opening performance of Twelfth Night matched the space perfectly. The actors brought the scenes to life with the Bard’s lines rather than elaborate sets pieces or props. When modern technology appeared, it subtly heightened the action of the scene without interrupting it.

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The same care that defines the new space was given to the performance of the text. Each character contained nuance and variety, creating a multi-faceted production full of laughs and drama. Tom Weaver’s performance as Malvolio contrasted in every way Francesca Amendolia’s performance as Feste, adding an undercurrent of humor and intrigue to the convoluted romance unfolding.

For their first season, the Gamut Theatre Group is bringing their usual array of children’s shows (such as A Christmas Carol currently running for the holiday season), Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti (opening after the new year), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in February. Interspersed amongst those main shows, there are also a number of performances from their improvisational team as well as community projects with their Stage Door Series.

Go here for more information on Gamut Theatre Group.