I attended Queensland Theatre’s The Taming of the Shrew with low expectations. Why stage arguably Shakespeare’s most misogynistic and problematic play in 2021? I was dead wrong. Having seen multiple Shakespeare plays in Brisbane over the years, The Taming of the Shrew is by far the best.
For those unfamiliar (but perhaps more aware of the iconic 10 Things I Hate About You), the original premise focuses on the beautiful Bianca (Claudia Ware), who may not marry before her tempestuous older sister Katharina (Anna McGahan). Cue a host of suitors vying for Bianca’s hand. The subplots involve classic Shakespearean intrigue, disguise, and mistaken identity. Then follows a (somewhat) happy ending with her marriage to Lucentio (Patrick Janhur). But the heart of the story is of newcomer Petruchio’s (Nicholas Brown) ‘rough wooing’ of Katharina. He subjects her to unrelenting abuse until she submits. Hardly a barrel of laughs.
Yet Damien Ryan’s direction achieves the almost impossible in delivering a sparkling and intelligent production. Re-imagining Padua as a Hollywood-style hub in the silent movie era, the production peppers the theatre with movie posters of the cast as glamorous film stars and intermittent projections of silent home-movie reels. Katharina and Bianca’s father Baptista (John McNeill) is now a Hollywood mogul, his younger daughter Bianca his film star. Katharina herself aspires to pilot planes. The set transforms from sound stage to rocking ship with smooth ease. Romantic jazz standards toy with societal preconceptions of idealised love. Technically, the production is both beautiful and faultless.
But theatrical cleverness alone cannot navigate the central relationship. However, the sexual chemistry between McGahan and Brown assures success. I confess that in some of Petruchio’s flirtations with Katharina, I felt more than a twinge of desire myself. In her eventual submission, one wonders if Katharina has discovered her own kinky side. Her final speech isn’t outright sarcastic, but knowing glances and a wry tone imply an understanding of sexual equality between them. The re-interpretation of Katharina’s complicity may not seem very feminist, but it raises interesting questions about consent. By interpreting Katharina’s shift as play, a sexual game in which she is an enthusiastic participant, perhaps returns her stolen agency to her.
Petruchio himself is also reinterpreted and it’s not unreasonable to assume that he fought in WW1. He lists various challenges he’s faced, suggesting that a woman’s tongue is nothing by comparison. The increasing outlandishness of the claims is usually played for laughs. But Brown’s growing hysteria suggests PTSD. Indeed, the direction recontextualises the words ‘Have I not heard great ordnance in the field, And heaven’s artillery thunder in the skies?’ as shell-shock. This may explain both Petruchio’s cruel streak and his flippant, contrary personality – he too has been pained by the patriarchal system.
This Shrew also neatly recasts the gender of other characters. Lucentio’s manservant Tranio is now his sister Tania; his father Vincentio now his mother Vincentia (an imperious, Lady Bracknellesque Barbara Lowe). This gender-swapping allows for some Twelfth Night-style exposure of the pretence and artifice of gender. That both deepens the themes of the play and allows for genuinely riotous humour. Bianca’s male suitors disguising themselves as female tutors may seem dated as comedy. However, the production deftly handles the interactions, presenting them as both provocative and genuinely funny.
Even more important, the gender reassignment of the characters showcases a range of women. Rather than ‘hot-headed Katharina vs. shallow Biana’ as stock female representation, women in this production are actually people. They possess a variety of temperaments and personalities. This also heightens the truth that Katharina is not simply an assertive woman ahead of her time. She’s actively rude. The question for me in Taming of the Shrew has never been why Katharina needs taming. Rather, why doesn’t Petruchio? He is equally unpleasant and bombastic. The traditional answer (that her lord and master’s word is admired while hers is derided) is troubling.
But on a stage peopled with a greater variety of women, this question gains complexity. As the film posters adorning the theatre attest, Bianca is the adored ideal of womanhood, a dazzling movie star. But this Bianca is no airhead. As the younger sister, it is her determination and self-awareness that garners her fame. She plays the patriarchal system (and the men in it) as much as Katharina resists.
But although a silent era actress, Bianca proves that she will not (to channel Oprah) be silent or silenced. She experiments with the incoming talkies. She loudly records the words, ‘a woman may be made a fool, if she had not the spirit to resist’, revealing a woman who knows her voice. However, the snatching of her perky blonde wig in the first act literally unmasks the spirit beneath the glitzy ingenue. She then voluntarily removes the wig for her secret elopement in the second. And it is Bianca who is the most pained by an inability to reconcile her sister’s submissive transformation. She cannot recognise that Katharina finds her own way to play the system.
The Taming of the Shrew: a sparkling evening
For all this intelligent exploration of gender, for the most part, the production, to its benefit, is not shrewish. The gender politics serve as a backdrop for the Shrew to lean into the text’s original intention — comedy. This is a sparkling evening, full of wit, farce, slapstick, and impeccable comic timing. Bryan Probets’ effusive Gremio milks every line for laughs, matched only by Lowe’s Vincentia. Even when not speaking, Vincentia withers Bianca with a single glare. Ellen Bailey as Tania lends depth to a stock character — a considered construction of gender in her disguise as her brother.
But the stand-outs of the evening are McGahan, Brown, and Ware. The success of the text rises or falls on the first two, and this production soars. (You’ll know what I mean by the end). It is a delicate feat to make gas stage lighting comic. However, when Petruchio repeatedly insists the sun is the moon until Katharina agrees, the ludicrousness prevails as riotous. Ware too must share the evening. Her assured performance imbues Bianca with a depth and self-awareness far beyond merely the simple beauty of an ingenue.
Taming of the Shrew is a long evening, but I never felt a single second of it. Instead, I was surprised, then delighted, and by the end, enchanted. Having gone to the theatre in a shrewish mood, I have been tamed.
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