While certainly not as rarely performed as Pericles, Prince of Tyre or All's Well That Ends Well (much less King John), Sydney productions of The Taming of the Shrew have been few and far between in recent years. Although a highly entertaining yarn, the reason for its scarcity is doubtlessly the play’s problematic gender politics, in which bold Petruchio seeks to marry and “tame” the willful and sharp-tongued Katharina, and is ultimately successful in doing so. Shrew is not generally considered one of Shakespeare’s “Problem Plays” per se, but it has certainly become something of a problem for its interpreters during the last century, and especially since Feminism (although in the increasingly surreal postfeminist landscape where Paris Hilton is a role model, one can only wonder how younger viewers may react to this tale…).
While the similarly feisty and well-matched couple of Benedick and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing manage to match wits and insults in a fairly equal manner and genuinely fall in love with each other (with the help of a little external trickery), the power in Shrew’s central relationship is far more unbalanced. Petruchio is initially willing to take Kate’s abuse in good stride but subsequently connives to wear her down by behaving even more contrarily than she does, all under the guise of besotted kindness. Deprived of sleep, food and a sane environment, Kate acquiesces and concludes the play with an infamous speech about a wife’s duty to be subservient to her husband. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s other strong female characters, Kate seems very much to “lose” at the end, resigning herself to a life of wifely obedience rather than entering into a balanced love-match.
The most common method taken to counteract these difficulties is to indeed play the lead characters more like Beatrice and Benedick, making Kate’s insults and Petruchio’s privations into a form of overt flirtation. One has also heard of productions which try to subvert or otherwise wriggle out of Kate’s infamous speech, such as having the actress speak the lines with irony, show the audience a winking look, or even, in one case, display slashed wrists at its conclusion. The results of such gimmicked interpretations can be mixed.
Director Rachel McDonald has instead chosen to stage a relatively “straight” version of the play, choosing to portray the contentious relationship with subtle ambiguities rather than any obviously enforced interpretation. There are certainly hints that Kate eventually understands and possibly even enjoys Petruchio’s strange treatment of her, perhaps even viewing it as something of a game. Although the character hardly becomes meek and mild, she does deliver a seemingly sincere version of her famous closing speech, to which Petruchio has a disquieted, almost fearful reaction. Are we to interpret this as his having become disturbed or remorseful in light of having successfully broken the feisty woman’s spirit? Have the couple begun some form of role-playing in which Petruchio has become the submissive in contradiction to his domineering words? Does he simply realise he liked the old Kate better? This concluding nuance is ambiguous, but in the context of this production it is a boon, leaving the audience with things to ponder.
Another possibility is that Pretruchio perceives reality beginning to crumble around him, as McDonald employs Shrew’s play-within-a-play “induction” scene, a frequently omitted framing device which shows the story as actually being a show performed as part of an elaborate trick being played on a drunken tinker, Christopher Sly. However, through the doubling of Sly with Petruchio and certain elements of the staging, we are given the impression that the story is actually the tinker’s dream, and that Petruchio is perhaps his dreamtime alter-ego. Something similar was done recently by the American Players' Theater.
Despite the uncommon inclusion of the “induction”, this Shrew is nevertheless quite a stripped-back version, not only because of the small cast but also its heavily-edited text that allows the show to run without an interval and still clock in at under two hours. Concision is not something one often expects of an evening’s Shakespeare! Although I can usually spot cuts a mile away in plays with which I’m more familiar like Othello, being less familiar with Shrew I found this apparently drastic pruning to be actually quite seamless.
Giving the play a Sergio Leone aesthetic, Genevieve Dugard’s curious TexMex production design provides a visually interesting setting for the tight cast of eight talented actors who, needless to say, double extensively. Perhaps the most unusual doubling choice was to cast John Leary as not only the comical servant Grumio but also as Kate’s beautiful sister, the plot-motivating ingénue Bianca. Although Leary did a great job to be sure, it was difficult to see if this particular bit of genderbending (of a major character, no less) had any deeper motivation than getting some extra laughs.
As the doubling of Bianca would imply, Alice Parkinson as Kate is the only actress in the cast, and she is excellent. The danger, one supposes, in playing the titular shrew is in pushing the character too far towards either extreme of being unbearably shrewish or conversely too likable. Parkinson seems to find a good latitude between these poles with a characterisation that is both edgy and endearing. As her leading man, Rohan Nichol is likewise perfectly cast as Petruchio, affording the part buckets of roguish charm with enough hints of vulnerability to give him texture.
STC Education’s The Taming of the Shrew is a delight. See it.
Sydney Theatre Company Education Presents
The Taming of the Shrew
by William Shakespeare
Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company
28 May - 22 June 2007
Monday's @ 10:30am & 1:30pm (NO PERF Mon 11 June - Queens Birthday/Public Holiday)
Tuesday's @ 10:30am & 1:30pm (except Tuesday 5 June, perf @ 7pm only)
Wednesday's @ 10:30am (except Wednesday 6 June, perf @ 7pm only)
Thursday's @ 10:30am & 1:30pm
Friday 1 & 22 June at 10:30am only & Friday 8 & 15 June at 10:30am & 1:30pm
$20 for students, $30 for adults
(02) 9250 1777