About ten months ago, I was at a scratch night at Morley College, where I watched the first fifteen minutes of a very funny one-woman show about a teenage girl who wants to be Hamlet in her school play, but is devastated to see the role going to an inferior actor – who just happens to be a boy.
Five months later, I was back at Morley to review the full show before it went up to Edinburgh, and was surprised by the direction it had taken. Instead of a riotous comedy about a woman playing Shakespeare’s men, the piece had developed into an honest and brave (but still funny) account of the difficulties faced by female actors in the theatre industry through one woman’s personal experience.
Last night, Joue le Genre‘s To She Or Not To She was back in London, playing to a sell-out crowd as part of Evolution at the Lyric Hammersmith, and I was keen to see how it had developed both during the Edinburgh run and since, under its new director Katharina Reinthaller.
To She Or Not To She is the story of actor Emma Bentley, who plays various versions of herself at ages 14, 19, 23 and 24, as well as a host of other colourful characters from her past. Emma’s a natural comedian, and has no problem with joining the audience in laughing at herself – although even she seemed taken aback last night at how popular some of her one-liners were. Much of these are in-jokes for either the theatre crowd or the women in the audience, but none are so specialist that they can’t be appreciated by anyone who doesn’t fall into one of those categories.
Emma’s confident, natural performance and openness about her own shortcomings and disappointments – as an actor and a woman – mean that by the time we arrive at the serious heart of the show, the audience is fully invested and willing to listen, not just to Emma’s story but also to the other female actors who’ve supplied verbatim accounts of their experiences in the industry, for a scene that marks the show’s turning point from pure comedy to something much darker.
Under its new director, To She Or Not To She has been reworked – so gone is the record player that used to open the show, and instead we see Emma indulging in a bit of secret Shakespeare fangirling whilst mopping floors at the coffee shop where she works to pay the bills. This, it turns out, is the present day, and acts as a sobering backdrop to the younger Emma’s optimism as she chats excitedly to the audience about her future prospects.
It’s a privilege to have seen To She Or Not To She develop from its very early days into the show it is now – one that’s really fun to watch, but also has a clear and powerful political message. At a time when equality in acting is a hotly debated issue, it’s also very timely, and while Emma herself recognises that her own disappointments may not be the most shocking or serious, they nonetheless pave the way for an important discussion that needs to take place.
To find out more about To She Or Not To She, check out this interview with Emma Bentley.