How frustrating must it be for a fourteen-year-old girl, who is obsessed with Shakespeare and obviously the best actor in her year, to find that all the best parts are reserved for boys! In this autobiographical solo show, Emma Bentley takes us through the key stages of a young woman’s nascent acting career, as reality bites about her industry’s true nature and she determines to do something about it.
We first encounter Bentley as a schoolgirl, desperate to be cast as Hamlet in the school play – an endearing mix of enthusiasm, ambition and gaucheness. As time passes these characteristics mature, but are never lost entirely; Bentley's confidence is assailed by an unfairness and lack of imagination in casting decisions, which force her into narrowly defined and conventional types such as the ingénue. There is also sadness in how we see the eager and naïve teenager transformed into a woman who feels harassed, forced into exercise, dietary and beauty regimes that are unhealthy and time-consuming, just to fit into a mould others have defined for her.
The play is saturated in Shakespeare references. It’s great fun to try and spot them, but they also work well to illustrate Emma’s intelligent and nerdy nature – which stands in contrast to the parts she is being pushed towards. And they also give her something to rebel against: “Frailty, thy name is woman?” Emma doesn’t think so, and this show is her statement of intent. Her moment of epiphany, that it’s not her fault – it’s the world she is in that’s wrong – is handled perfectly, though even then she is aware enough to recognise her own advantages.
The early parts of the show have moments – such as her spinal roll demonstrations – which, while funny and illustrative of character, just run for a beat or two too long. And I’m not sure there is enough done to develop the character from the initial schoolgirl, particularly on the second occasion we meet her at drama school. A little bit more pace would propel the early narrative more forcefully towards the truly excellent final twenty minutes. Still, to me, it’s always a good sign when a show gets stronger towards the end; it shows there is plenty of material to sustain our interest.
To She Or Not To She is an honest and entertaining look at sexism in the theatre industry. Bentley’s role as an innocent abroad, coming to a realisation about her place in that world, rings true – as does her determination to do her own thing, embodied by the very show we are watching. I only wish my acting-obsessed teenage daughter had been there to see it with me.