As a lecturer in eighteenth and nineteenth century literature at Manchester Metropolitan University, Sonja’s research centres around women’s writing from the late seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century, with a keen interest in Irish literature, eighteenth-century imperialism, Romantic Orientalism, feminist criticism and postcolonial theory.
As a highly intelligent academic, Sonja talked to me about education, the feminist movement and strong female characters.
In her career, there are plenty of women researchers working in her field however they are still uncovering new figures of interest, Sonja told me: “We need to do more research into so many characters, for example Fanny Furnival, the first woman that we know of to play Hamlet professionally on the Dublin stage.”
Many female lecturers argue that there aren’t enough women authors on university reading lists, Sonja said: “There are plenty of women on my reading lists, that is certainly true, there is a distance however between what we teach and the structures of academia.” As in the difference between what is discussed in the lecture theatre and what occurs in the outside world.
Sonja explained: “The institutions in which we operate are still incredibly gender biased, they’re still racially bias and they’re still bias in terms of class. So although in the classroom we do our best to expose our students to the diversity in the world around us, we still operate within very traditional male bias, gender bias structures and practices that impact on the efficacy of what we do.”
As we discussed education, I asked Sonja about her view on young women’s confidence in terms of expressing their voice at university. She said: “It depends, I don’t want to generalise too much in that way but yes I do to a certain extent. Certainly from Irish Catholic background that you shouldn’t put yourself forward too much, I think that is particularly with young girls and young women.”
She described that there is also a distinct lack of confidence in terms of class, she expressed the importance of encouraging confidence within students.
“It’s so important to let the students know that just because you didn’t go to private school, just because you weren’t raised on a diet of Shakespeare, doesn’t mean that your ideas and readings are of any less worth.”
She told me: “Confidence is something we have to engage with and that of course goes out from the classroom to the working world, so if you manage to gain confidence in the classroom setting you’ll manage to gain it in the working world.”
At the Women in Creative Industries event, hosted by the British Council, we watched a screening of Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre starring Maxine Peake as Hamlet. Lots of discussion arose from from the screening including many people referring to Maxine Peake as a huge influence in the feminist movement as a female playing Hamlet.
Sonja urged how we must not refer to Maxine as a ‘female Hamlet’, she said: “For me actually it is a bit of a misnomer calling it a female Hamlet because I think actually Maxine Peake’s Hamlet went beyond gender which was important to me. ”
Sonja saw a performance of Orlando starring Suranne Jones as the lead role, a role traditionally played by a man, she explained that after the play there was a question by a member of the audience who asked: “Did you find it difficult transitioning to a male character” and Suranne Jones answered: “No not at all because I played a person, I played a person and it was the same person throughout the whole play so I didn’t change at all, it was an individual.”
“This isn’t the first female Hamlet, we need to stop referring to her as a female Hamlet and actually refer to her as a fantastic actor playing a fantastic role.”
Sonja is very passionate about the need for more strong female roles in theatre, she said: “There is a lack of strong, interesting female characters on stage, the characters are there but they’re not as well known, there are a lot of important female characters but they’re silent.” Whether it is more characters being written or more females playing male roles, Sonja believes: “What lots of female actors have done with Hamlet is when they’ve had a female lead playing Hamlet it opens up a whole new dimension to the character.”
“You have to go back and explore these characters, we do have these interesting female characters, but often they’re not given the space for us to engage with them and how they felt and what they represent.”
Some argue that men shouldn’t play female roles because there are already enough roles for men however if we want to achieve equality then this shouldn’t be a problem. Sonja talked about how the most important thing is that a good actor is playing a good role. She said: “I don’t believe in female and masculine qualities, maybe if all roles were opened up to everybody then we would see a lot more diversity.”