Bell Shakespeare presents THE TAMING OF THE SHREW by William Shakespeare at the Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House.
“[T]he last scene is altogether disgusting to modern sensibility. No man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed of the lord-of-creation moral implied in the wager and the speech put into the woman’s own mouth. Therefore the play, though still worthy of a complete and efficient representation, would need, even at that, some apology.” - George Bernard Shaw, 1897.
My first consciousness of this play is the endearing photograph of Laurence Olivier as Kate in almost every biography of that great actor. The Zefferelli film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is a lasting visual memory pleasure. There was a version by the Old Tote Theatre Company at the old Parade Theatre. (The actors elude my memory, at this time, but I remember it was with in the Golden Era of productions (of my Memories) in the early ‘70’s.) The version by Charles Marowitz I remember seeing at the Studio at the Sydney Opera House with Elaine Hudson and Stuart Campbell and being shocked and divided. The most recent professional production I saw was at Walnut Creek in the out skirts of the environs of San Francisco. This last production, I attended, with trepidations about the play itself and its political viability in the contemporary sexual politics, especially in the liberties of a fabulous San Francisco. The experience, however turned out to be one of pleasure - so much of the play was genuinely funny and amusing – a comedy/farce. The ending still had its contemporary problems but the overall impression was one of surprised delight at the play’s humour.
The play presented in this season by the Bell Shakespeare was a welcome anticipation. The joy of the comedy, I remembered, and the dilemma of the “politics” intrigued me. That it was to be played by an entire “regiment” of women whetted more the interest. Particularly when I knew the cast list: Sandy Gore, Judi Farr, Vanessa Downing, Wendy Strehlow, Jeanette Cronin, Anna Huston, Beth Aubrey, Emily Rose Brennan, Lotte St Clair, Luisa Hastings Edge, Ksenja Logos. Now, some of these actors I know better than others but, as it was when I anticipated the cast of STEEL MAGNOLIAS, it was with a sense of joy that so many women were being employed and we were to see their gifts and talents on stage. Some of them scarcely seen in recent times - much to our loss. The performances were mostly valiant and fun to see. Ms Gore, Farr, Downing, Strehlow, wily in their clever offers and presence, stabilising a concept of the play that was essentially bewildering. Of the other actors Ms Edge (Lucentio) was particularly amusing and convincing. The steadfastness and integrity of Ms Aubrey (Hortensio) admirable.
I had prepared myself well with a research background to approach this production and the Bell program notes were, as well, very informative. My response to the production, Directed by Marion Potts and Designed by Anna Tregloan, however makes any of that superfluous. The set design, in “a wedding reception center or a gentleman’s club” was so depressing in visual terms and so clumsy in its furniture lay out, with a clock puzzlingly stuck on a fixed moment in time (featured in its lighting design ( Paul Jackson)), that it was easy, but still dismaying, to switch off. Almost completely. Add a sequence when the play moves to Verona, the estate of Petruchio, that is similarly, visually stunted, but serviced by, I guess, visual imagery references to the recent “Stepford Wives” film, in the servant’s striking pastel dresses and hats, (while humming the tune of A MAN AND A WOMAN), and one might begin to wonder what I had ate before the performance to cause such discomfort. Further, add the karaoke scene divisions, sung by different members of the cast, that seemed to have had more thought put into their choice than any other textual offer made by the director and “suicide” might have been a contemplation.(Composer / Sound Max Lyandvert).
In the production credits there is no Voice or Text coach. The resultant work is self evident. As in recent past productions by this company the vocal work is so disconnected to the joys of the heightened text, music and poetry, that it is ominous to observe that most of the laughter in the performance I saw came as a result of physical comedy or from interpolated contemporary expressions such as Ms Brennan’s “Fuck this” whilst sweeping cups and other debris from an upstage corner ( Upstaged!!) in the midst of the famous/infamous last speech by Kate, that was, interestingly, been delivered "straight" by Ms St Clair, quite well. (i.e. It was clear and had some music of the poetry). The noise of this spoken performance was almost unbearable.
To say that this was a dispiriting night in the theatre is an understatement. That I and many about me were bored, unarguable. My experience of the Bell Shakespeare this year has not been good. Neither Ben Jonson or William Shakespeare has been vocally served well. In fact the Bard has not had a good year in Sydney all round except for the Siren Theatre and MAKE beLIVE production of Richard III by Kate Gaul in May at CarriageWorks. What is the outstanding difference, in my mind? That the text was been spoken to serve the audiences enjoyment and intellectual stimulation: Clear sense and the "music" of the poetry and prose at CarriageWorks by Ms Gaul’s company.
A permanent Voice/Speech coach would be, I reckon, a help to the Bell Company. (Cut down on your set and costume budgets and find the funds for this very necessary, self evidently in this years output-let alone last year’s HAMLET, artist.)
The imposition of auteur/concept onto the play is only a further obfuscation to the experience, if the actors are not better prepared for the communication of the language demands/complications of this great playwright. Having recently watched the broadcast of the National Theatre’s production of ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, at the Chauvel Cinema, it is not concept that retards clarity, for in the National Theatre’s work, there was much intellectual rigour and skill in the concept that the director contextualised her production in. What was a great experience , was to hear the language dealt with such insight, passion and just plain great clarity and respectful use of the poetic constructions, supported by technique being clarified by the conceptual choices!!!! None of the SHREW Company seem to me lack technique or training, just disciplined guidance. If I were in the Bell Company, I might suggest that the need for a permanent Vocal Coach would supersede the need for a Fight Director – credited in almost every production of the Bell Company.
“Tips for coping with old age, retirement and ungrateful children” is the Bell Shakespeare marketing ploy for Shakespeare’s great tragedy KING LEAR!!!!!!!!!
“The sort of thing that can happen when a man looks a little too much like his sister”, the contemporary marketing packaging for TWELFTH NIGHT!!!!! (I thought, if you have, had, read the play, if you were going down this marketing path, the slogan should be “The sort of thing that can happen when a woman looks a little like her brother”. The fact that the casting in the program supplied is Brent Hill and not an actress, unless it is to be an all male cast, odd, too. The play’s central character is Viola not Sebastian, isn’t it?
Alarm bells of trivialisation ring loud in my head. Disrespect thunders in my guts. Then, of course, I don’t necessarily understand the need for such stuff, this branding and marketing, mostly, because I have always understood if the Product is consistently good/great, it is probably not necessary to stoop to such banalities. It is REPUTATION that is all, is it not? (Somewhere in Othello, it says so.) The BELL SHAKESPEARE “brand” should stand by itself. Enough time has passed for the formidable expectation of quality that the Brand: RSC has, should reverberate the Bell Shakespeare product too, ought it not?
Above, Shaw spoke of an apology. Here, for different reasons, if Mr Shakespeare were alive it might also be still deserving – but to him, not from him.
Playing now until 21 November at the Sydney Opera House Playhouse.
For more information or to book click here.