Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Taming of The Shrew

Sport For Jove presents THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, by William Shakespeare, in the Riverside Theatre, Riverside, Parramatta. 5-7 May. A season at the Seymour Centre, follows on 19-28 May.

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW is one of the plays of Shakespeare, that can find itself, often, the centre of deep contemporary cultural-political debate, controversy. Says Norrie Epstein in his THE FRIENDLY SHAKESPEARE [1]:
The play's misogyny, whether Shakespeare's or Petruchio's (In the original play the Katherine-Petruchio story is the illusion created for a drunken character called Sly, by some callous young noblemen), has caused something of a problem in recent years. Some Directors try to sidestep the issue by making Kate's submission a joke or by accepting the words at face value without irony or nuance, while others reinterpret Shakespeare to make him more acceptable to modern women. SHREW can be played any number of ways: as a Punch and Judy show, a war between the sexes, a bedroom farce, an ironic look at female power, a complicated exploration of sexual relations, or a savage indictment of patriarchal authority. ... But no matter which interpretation a Director chooses, he or she still has to confront that final stumbling block - Kate's speech of submission:
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth her husband.
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
In the critical war of opinion, quoted in the Sport For Jove (SFJ) program notes, we can read from Penny Gay, Australia's most revered Shakespeare academic:
…would Shrew still be in the the dramatic repertoire if it did not have the magic name Shakespeare attached to it? ... The play enacts the defeat of the threat of a woman's revolt. audience gets to reinforce their misogyny at the same time as feeling good.
And, on the-other-hand, famously, Germaine Greer saying:
The Taming of the Shrew is not a knockabout farce of wife-battering but the cunning adaptation of a folk-motif to show the forging of a partnership between equals. Shakespeare contrasts the wooing and marriages of Kate and Bianca. Bianca is younger and prettier and she plays the courtship game to land the more highly prized suitor bur after marriage Lucientio finds himself saddled with a cold, disloyal woman who has no objection of humiliating him in public. Kate, on the other hand, has taken herself off the market by becoming an unmanageable scold but she has the uncommon good fortune to find Petruchio who is a man enough to know what he wants and knows how to get it. He wants her spirit and her energy because he wants a wife worth keeping. He tames her like he may tame a hawk or a high-mettled horse and she rewards him with strong sexual love and fierce loyalty. Petruchio is both gentle and strong and Kate's speech at the close of the play is the greatest defence of Christian monogamy ever written.' (these words enflamed almost as much debate as the play itself).
So, Damien Ryan, the Director of this THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (also, Artistic Director of Sport For Jove), has entered the 'critical' fray, and conceived a production of the play, which in this iteration, is its second season in Sydney. I have seen this play only thrice before: once, long ago from the Old Tote Company in 1972, an all-female version by Bell Shakespeare in 2009, and a production in Walnut Creek in California. What I remember, especially, from the Californian production was how comic the play was. I had, then, because the play was relatively unknown to me, a very happy and surprising time. Says John Bell in his book, ON SHAKESPEARE:
Putting its contentious sexual politics to one side, the play is a brilliantly constructed comedy full of well-defined and colourful characters. The subplot with its rival lovers, tricks, disguises, cunning servants and double crossers is marvellously realised, a feast for a company of character-comedians. [2] 
 And a joyous and attentive experience is what I took away from this Sport For Jove production, with its unique rambunctious collection of character-comedians.

I have, generally, admired the conceits, conceptional 'wrappings' of Mr Ryan's productions of Shakespeare, if not always admiring the clarity of his 'Shakespeare-core' - and by that I mean, for instance, in his production of HENRY V, that the conceit of the London Blitz, as the 'entrance' to that play for his audience was better appreciated than the actual content of Shakespeare's play - the story of King Henry V. I found the production 'wrapping' an obstruction to the storytelling of Shakespeare's play. The 'invention' commanded one's attention to the detriment of the original play.

This TAMING OF THE SHREW is set in the burgeoning silent film era and includes many interpolations of actual SFJ silent movies of comic pertinence including amusing titles, - the amazing Videographer, being David Stalley. The cinematic piece-de-resistance is the final film where our twenties aviatrix Katharina-Kate-Kitty-hawk with her Petruchio, stowed in the back, perhaps, co-pilots, fly off into the sunset together - thematically finishing Mr Ryan's brilliant conceit for his 'show'. Thus, in its played construction I did not find it dominating the Shakespearean story, and rather, absolutely, found it serving Hamlet's instruction to the Players, (paraphrasing): let the word suit the action and the action suit the word.

This is an adaptation of the play with much gender bending, e.g. Tranio becoming Tania (Eloise Winestock), Vincentio becoming Vincentia (Angela Bauer) amongst some others, and therefore not, wholly, the play as writ by Shakespeare. It, however, in its much re-writing still captures the story, the characters, the politics and most joyously, the comedy of the original play. I sat forward in my seat early, smiling, and excited with the audacity of SFJ's production conceit and also, relishing the Shakespearean/Ryan text.

All of these 14 actors, who are part of a four play season at the Seymour Centre: revivals of HAMLET, MACBETH, THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, and a new production of the Australian classic AWAY, by Michael Gow, are on top of their game. Robert Alexander, Danielle King, Lizzie Schebesta, James Lugton, Mike Cullen, Eloise Winestock, Chris Stalley, George Kemp, Angela Bauer, Barry French, Terry Karabelas, Amy Usherwood, George Banders and Chris Tomkinson give a confident and wryly comic reading of the production - all, clarity itself, and all carrying their responsibilities with a great sense of how their part is serving the whole - a beautifully well-oiled 'machine'.

Ms King, as Katharina, is as rich with her textual insights as she is with her attentive and brooding presence in all of her other scenes - a great theatrical intelligence enhancing this creation for a great and moving benefit. Mr Lugton is a swaggering and comically intelligent Petruchio, an impertinent match in his wooing of his 'bride'. Whilst, Ms Schebesta (Bianca) and Winestock (Tania) with Mr Stalley (Lucentio) and Banders (Tailor) had me especially attentive.

This is a very handsome production, Designed with a great sense of detail in the intricate Set permutations of the Directorial demands of Mr Ryan, and the Costuming, also, by Ms Gardiner, is wondrously humorous and immense in scale (the number of changes for Ms Schebesta, an awesome statistic in itself!). Anna Gardiner is, indeed, a major talent, seemingly growing from strength to strength in her endeavours. The Lighting By Sian James-Holland, the Sound Design by Tom Allum, too, supports the sweep of the evening's experience. Considering the scale of this production and the demands of the other productions of this Sport For Jove season at the Seymour Centre, I feel I ought to acknowledge the input and excellence from the production team: Bronte Axam (Stage Manager), and Katherine Holmes, Lauren Holmes (Assistant Stage Managers) and Ryan Devlin (Tech Manager).

All in all, this THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, is worth catching.

P.S. Put down a 'gold coin' to get hold of the program as well, for Mr Ryan has provided a very erudite set of notes to support his reasoning for presenting the Shrew in this day and controversy. I caught a train and bus home from Parramatta and was still engrossed in the notes, and had to finish them with a cup of tea on getting home - two hours or so of  solid reading! Much to ponder and wonder at. Argue as well. The argument about the efficacy of this play  in our day and age, is one of the reasons to see the play - a justification, itself of a production -  so, a good enough reason to put your gold coin(s) in. Join the conversation - what good art should provoke.



  1. Norrie Epstein. 1993. THE FRIENDLY SHAKESPEARE. Penguin Books.
  2. John Bell. 2011. ON SHAKESPEARE. Allen and Unwin.

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