Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Taming Of The Shrew

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.


Anonymous said...

After reading over many of your reviews Kevin, what becomes abundantly clear is that you just don't enjoy theater any more. You can no longer be taken into new worlds, or hear interesting, unique voices. Your blogs reek of "old, angry man in a nursing home." I for one, feel sorry for you Kevin. Perhaps one day your theater utopia will unfold for you and heaven forbid you may even stand up and clap when the curtain falls.

Kevin Jackson said...

Hi Anonymous,

If you look back at my recent reviews, you will find MISSING THE BUS TO DAVID JONES; SILVER; GOD OF CARNAGE; THE ACO CONCERT; THE BOUGAINVILLE PHOTOPLAY PROJECT; REFERENCES TO SALVADOR DALI MAKE ME HOT; in fact six of the eight reviews for October were more than a happy experience for me. I enjoy the theatre very much, just not indiscriminately. I also value the craft and the art of it. I go, if you read any of the above reviews, and have been taken "to new worlds" (Jose Rivera, God of Carnage) and continually hear, and importantly appreciate, "interesting unique voices" (Matthew Whittet, Carlos Gomes, etc). I do hope when I am in that nursing home, however angry I may be, and however angry I have made you, that you will have the generosity to forgive me and take me out to the theatre that you so obviously enjoy as well. (Although you have not said so – within your sympathy for my age and temper.) If you have seen MISSING THE BUS TO DAVID JONES (a fearful vision of a new world for someone my age, as you suggest) you may recall how much I would be grateful. I have ‘theatre utopias’ open for me on a regular basis (see above reviews) and when the work deserves a response that urges me to "stand up and clap when the curtain falls." I do. Six out of eight reviews, favourably enjoyed – I reckon that is a pretty unusual average. (Check the New York Times for their critics averages.)

By the way what did you enjoy about THE TAMING OF THE SHREW as obviously my response has pushed some buttons that you found either odd or confronting?

Kevin J.

Anonymous said...

dear kevin

THANKYOU for speaking out about this aweful production, the moronic marketing blurbs and bad voice work on Sydney stages. I think you are very generous in your praise of some events and equally scathing about those things you don't like. Again, thanks for your informed opinions.... I have a sense of your taste and I equally read to learn and listen to (sometimes) alternat points of view. I also enjoyed Richard at CarriageWorks very much - a joy to see such great and inventive enesemble work too I remember. If only the company of women in the Shrew were equally blessed! Cherry.

Unknown said...

It is one thing to disagree with Kevin, as I do sometimes, but to be abusive with out even leaving your name 'reeks of cowardice'. At least Kevin puts his name to his opinion.
Johann Walraven.

ziggysawdust said...

Dear Kevin,
I have high regard for your brilliance as a teacher, director, actor and critic. I have enjoyed your on stage work since “The Norman Conquests” and there have been several productions you directed at the New and at NIDA which I consider myself very fortunate to have attended.
However, I - and I seem to be in a very small group with this opinion, joined by Diana Simmonds on her Stage Noise site and Jason Blake in the Herald - strongly disagree with your views regarding the BSC staging of "..Shrew".
I totally agree that the company desperately needs a resident voice and text coach. Its best productions have hugely benefited from input from fine specialists such as Bill Pepper and Rowena Balos.
But I do believe that this interpretation of this most problematic text represents some of the finest direction and ensemble work in the company's history. For me - and I did see it at the start of its long tour - it's the best BSC production I've attended since "Trolius and Cressida", which also polarized opinions.
I believe that Marion Potts' interpretation was an exceedingly thoughtful and carefully executed re-examination of the text. I do think that one needed to really examine many choices she made. Yes, the set for the first half was incredibly cluttered as characters navigated around numerous obstacles. I don't think that Petruchio's home was "Stepford Wives": it was Fellini-esque, with all the associated sexism. To me the clock stuck at one time, along with the two potential brides being confined to sleep wear until they were allowed to don wedding dresses, was powerful symbolism. And I thought the choice of Petruchio’s wedding outfit, like the decision to use an all female cast, was absolutely inspired.
I saw the acclaimed and nationally televised Old Tote production to which you refer - which starred John Bell and Anna Volska and relocated the action to Federation Australia - and believe it was similarly of its time, but enforced the Elizabethan beliefs of the text. This production, however, made the audience question if and how we have moved on as a society. Like a good staging of early Williamson, it forced one to simultaneously laugh and cringe. (And judging by the hair styles, velvet jackets and song choices I think it was set in the early '80s - when a "Don's Party" type mentality still ran rife).
If nothing else, I believe that this production displayed a level of intelligence in its direction which has been greatly lacking in much of the company's other works (eg. Gertrude dressed as Tina Turner in the '90 "Hamlet", the "Ran"-like "Richard III", the recent “MacBeth”). It also highlighted the comic brilliance of some of the country's best actresses - especially Madames Cronin, Downing, Gore and Farr. And for the record, I do not think you will ever "reek of old angry man"!
All the very best,
Rowan Greaves.

Anonymous said...

Dear Kevin,
Recently, I have been reading your blog and I have found your entries to be honest and thoughtful. At times I agree and at other times, I disagree, but I love that about theatre.
However, I wanted to share a thought: I, and a large number of my peers and colleagues, have been responsible for the changing face of Fight Direction in this country for the last twelve years through our work with the Society of Australian Fight Directors inc (SAFDi) and the greater entertainment industry and acting institutions at large.
In the past (and in some cases still today) our industry has had poor quality and very unsafe work practices with regards to fights, fight moments and/or slapstick. We (the SAFDi) have worked hard to educate the industry to understand the roles and responsibilities of a correctly qualified Fight Director. If cast and creatives on productions are left to fend for themselves, then the likelihood is that someone will sustain an injury.
In your blog entry about The Taming Of The Shrew, you wrote:
“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”
I might suggest that we (as an industry) encourage companies to understand the need for all roles, thus creating more employment for artists across all spectrums, rather than cutting certain roles and in the end, compromising art and safety.
My role as a Fight Director on set and in the rehearsal room goes way above and beyond what appears on the stage. Mostly, my work is (and should be) invisible - as should the work of all creatives and artists be invisible, in my opinion - all that should be heard and seen is the story ... buts that’s another blog!

Scott Witt MFA

For more in about SAFDi –

Kevin Jackson said...

Dear Scott,

Thanks for your note. I totally appreciate your work and contribution to the work. I was not suggesting that the work you do was not both valuable and necessary and heartily agree that it ought to be part of the permanent creative team of any professional company. As should be, I agree with you, a vocal coach.

My observation was probably a budgetary one: for if the Bell Company are not able to have both a PHYSICAL and VOCAL coach as part of the professional team, my observation of what I think is a problem with the work I have seen this year, the voice/speech work, is the urgent necessity for that vocal coach, and that it ought to be a priority, especially considering the density and level of difficulty of the regular texts that the company works with. (Perhaps if it was the other way round I might be calling for a Physical coach.)

Essentially, when one looks at the support creatives of the Festival Companies (Eg. The St Petersburg Company, Theatre Complicite, Schaubuhne Berlin etc.), when visiting and impressing, it is remarkable to see the number of both physical and vocal coaches that are contributing to the work of the Director and Actors!!!! Certainly those companies appear to reach a place of clarity and style with their acting and story telling that set a bench mark of excellence.

If our companies are to move forward in their artistry, this is where the craftsmanship of the artists needs to be professionally supported. It,of course, is a cost. Maybe Scott, some of the Olympic Funding, under present government examination, could be diverted to the ARTS!!!?????? Thanks for your contribution.

Kevin J.