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.

This summer saw a Globe Theatre production of Shakespeare’s King John staged in the historic location of Salisbury Cathedral

[Images by Adrian Harris]

Built in 1258 and with a 400-foot spire, Salisbury Cathedral makes an appropriately regal setting for this production of King John, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and Royal & Derngate take full advantage of the building’s religious atmosphere.

The audience files in to the accompaniment of a requiem mass, past great bowls of smoking incense and a tomb decked with peace lillies and the armour of Richard the Lionheart.

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Like the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, this production uses only candles for illumination, so sound plays a major role in the staging. Echoing timpani conjure scenes of war and an atmospheric vocal score by Orlando Gough resonates around, rather than getting lost among, the building’s vaulting arches.

It is refreshing to see a cast with an average age of perhaps 45. Jo Stone-Fewings, excellently cast in the title role, is given a greying beard and slight paunch, and his hair is swept across the beginnings of a bald patch. He and director James Dacre (Artistic Director of Royal & Derngate) bring out the sense of randomness in a play where supremacy and success seem subject to chance.

His King John has a Monty Python-esque charm. When the pomp of his coronation is interrupted by the threat of war from France, he snatches the crown, crams it on to his head and legs it for the throne.

The stage is formed of two wide walkways in a cross shape, mirroring the crucifix shape of the cathedral, and is excellently suited for playing out the plays’ shifting political allegiances.

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As Cardinal Pandulph (Joseph Marcell) issues King Philip of France (Simon Coates) with an ultimatum – break with England or break with Rome – Philip stands ‘perplexed’ at the centre of the cross, King John derisive on one side of him, Pandulph deadly serious on the other.

The shape of the stage space also means that actors entering it become visible to some audience members before others.

At the start of the play this prompts much murmuring, craning of necks and nudging of neighbours, not unlike crowds waiting to see a royal procession. It gives some sense of the atmosphere that might have accompanied this play when it was first performed, although of course this building is more splendid than any it would have played in then.

While there is no surviving record of where King John was first performed, it is likely to have been by Shakespeare’s company The Chamberlain’s Men at the Theatre in Shoreditch, circa 1596.

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In recent years it has been the least frequently produced of all Shakespeare’s history plays, and it is the last of the ten to be performed by Shakespeare’s Globe, which comes as a surprise given the great potential of many of its roles.

Ciarán Owens plays the Dauphin Louis as an ambitious lad, compulsively tidying his hair beneath his crown and happy to put up with a wife if that is the cost of land and authority.

Barbara Marten, having recently played an aloof, almost submissive, Gertrude opposite Maxine Peake’s Hamlet (Manchester Royal Exchange) is imperious as John’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

As French Queen Constance, Tanya Moodie also makes the most of a challenging female role, from assertively protecting her child’s birthright to shaking the Cathedral with a primal scream of rage at the injustice that has been done to him.

With the exception of Stone-Fewings, every actor plays more than one role, creating some effective doublings. For example, soprano Aruhan Galieva makes her professional theatre debut as sullen Blanche of Castile, married against her will to secure England’s peace.

Abandoned on her wedding night, she sings a haunting melody of loss as her husband prepares for war with her country. Then a few scenes later, as the prophetess foretelling John’s downfall, she is almost unrecognisable but for her singing voice sending a shiver through the audience.

For me, the production’s most moving moment is when Hubert, the French nobleman who is so struck by French Prince Arthur’s purity and innocence that he cannot assassinate him, happens upon the prince’s broken body.

The Bastard is lamenting at length about “the thorns and dangers of this world”, but all I can focus on is Hubert going proudly, boldly up the stage’s steps with the dead prince’s body in his arms and tears on his face.

In a play so focussed on politics and dominion, this act of love unmotivated by any personal gain resonates more powerfully than all the cries of war.

25th Shakespeare Festival at the Globe in Neuss, Germany showcases Shakespeare talent from around the world

This weekend, the 25th annual Shakespeare Festival at the Globe in Neuss, Germany reaches the end of an eclectic programme of 13 productions, featuring Shakespeare performers from around the world.

The festival commenced on 28 of May, concluding on 27 June. It anticipated plenty of laughter from a total of six comedies, including Twelfth Night in Catalan and a cross-dressed As You Like It.

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The festival also featured three tragedies and an adapted history play featuring all of Shakespeare’s kings.

The 500-seat Neuss Globe theatre was designed in 1987 by impresario Reinhard Schiele, who took his inspiration from London’s reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe.

In 1991 it was transported to its current site beside a racecourse in the city of Neuss in western Germany, where it has produced its Shakespeare Festival every summer since.

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This year’s programme included the German premiere of a Portuguese-language Hamlet set in Rio de Janeiro, and an “impro-opera” by Munich-based ensemble La Triviata, in which four singers and a pianist composed and sang an improvised Shakespearean opera in response to keywords suggested by the audience.

In honour of the festival’s silver jubilee, British director Dan Jemmett created a quirkily dramatic production of Measure for Measure, set in a dilapidated funeral parlour and performed by his company Eat a Crocodile.

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Die Theaterachse from Salzburg presented a fast-paced take on The Merry Wives of Windsor with piano accompaniment, and Lautten Compagney Berlin performed a selection of English Renaissance music in A Midsummer Night’s Fantasies, with German film and television star Dominique Horwitz as Puck.

On Tuesday 23 June, Gustav Peter Wöhler and the WDR radio choir united in Shakespeare Theatre A Capella, and Stephen Jameson’s company Mountview Productions will bring the festival to a close with three performances of Love’s Labour’s Lost from 25 June onwards.

Go here for full programme details and to book tickets.

It’s a dream date for lovers of Shakespeare’s words – David and Ben Crystal talking about The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary

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Salisbury Arts Centre, 31 May 2015.

“Never has there been such a pretty book as this one,” declares David Crystal, with a proud and delighted smile at the cover of The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary on the projector screen behind him. He and his son Ben are at Salisbury Arts Centre as part of the Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival, to talk to a packed audience about Shakespeare’s world and words.

‘Talk’ is the wrong word for this event: the father and son team deliver something closer to a comedy double act, bringing their subject alive with jovial camaraderie and unshakeable delight in all things Shakespeare. Ben bounds onto the stage as if taking a curtain call, dressed in jeans with a fob watch on a chain hanging from one pocket. David combines a tweed jacket with the kindly, slightly eccentric manner of Professor Dumbledore, and enunciates words like “in-carn-a-dine” as if they were magic spells.

David Crystal has written or edited over 100 books on language and linguistics, four of which he co-wrote with actor and producer Ben. Published this year, The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary combines David’s passion for words with Ben’s knowledge of – and love of experimenting with – Shakespeare. The dictionary is aimed at students of Shakespeare of all nationalities and ages from 11 up, and covers the 12 most studied of Shakespeare’s plays, according to a poll of school teachers from around the world.

Ben Crystal by Piper Williams

Ben Crystal by Piper Williams

There are approximately one million different words in the complete works of Shakespeare (though none beginning with the letter ‘X’). But, David asserts, only around five per cent are significantly different to those we use today. The dictionary guides students through this five per cent, drawing particular attention to ‘false friends’ like ‘rehearse’ or ‘impress,’ which did not mean the same thing for Shakespeare as they do today.

Despite the book’s title, David considers it closer to an encyclopaedia than a dictionary. “Words by themselves aren’t the whole story,” he says. “More important than that is an introduction to Shakespeare’s world.”
Kate Bellamy’s bold illustrations certainly help provide this for the reader – the double page featuring 11 historically accurate illustrations of different kinds of sword is a particular highlight.

The authors hope their style will help students feel comfortable asking questions like ‘What is an arras actually like?’ or ‘Why is Hamlet surprised to find Polonius in Gertrude’s closet?’ The answer to the latter was news to me – a closet was a small antechamber off the main bedroom, containing very little besides, frequently, a large tapestry (aka arras). In Gertrude’s case, the tapestry might have covered a passage to her husband’s chamber, so Hamlet would expect to see no one but Claudius in this intimate space.

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Ben is passionate about “the idea we’re allowed to be rough with Shakespeare, to grab him by the… doublet and hose and, well, shake him about a bit.” Shaking things about is exactly what this talk does: the pair intersperse discussions of pedagogy and neologisms with a game of charades, David attempting to mime things like ‘soliloquy’ and ‘Father Chaucer,’ and Ben explaining them to the audience.

The Crystals’ engaging blend of comedy and academia has the audience laughing and enthusiastically asking questions. As their talk draws to a close Salisbury Arts Centre is buzzing with Shakespeare’s words.

Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary is in bookshops now. Or order it here.

Ben and David will be exploring Original Pronunciation (including an OP performance of Henry V) at Shakespeare’s Globe on 16 and 26 July

Go here to read a full interview with Ben Crystal in Shakespeare Magazine 06.