If he be waspish... Tony Cross went to see The Taming of the Shrew at The Globe recently...
Ah, The Taming of the Shrew. How does one deal with this play, which seems so ‘problematic’ to the modern audience. It might be a comedy but the breaking of Kate, as it could be called, is horribly dark. Yes, you can play it lighter. You can make it clear that, for whatever reason, Petruchio, actually loves Kate and that he isn’t just cruel for the sake of cruelty. Also we don’t really know how seriously audiences were meant to take this whole thing anyway. Was Shakespeare being ‘ironic’? Shakespeare wrote this – roughly – around 1590 so Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne. Would a play that tells us that women should, basically, put up or shut up have been well-received? Whatever the truth of things The Taming of the Shrew is an odd play: a comedy with a hard centre.
The director Caroline Byrne has set this production in Ireland, 1916. The time of the Rising. It’s supposed to be a commentary on the way the women of Ireland were treated and let down by the Rising. But you’d only really know that if you read her interview in the programme. Otherwise it’s just a lot of Irish people talking about coming from Padua or Mantua: Angela’s Ashes in Italy. I’ve said before that the choice of setting usually reflects a particular bee in a director’s bonnet and this seems to be the case in Byrne’s production. But to give her credit Byrne’s direction puts the plays misogyny front and centre, which makes it all the uglier.
It seems to me though that Kate’s fate doesn’t need the specificity of an historical setting to hammer it home. The breaking of Kate is the universal fate of women. It is enough, surely, to play her treatment at Petruchio’s hands straight to hit home, especially if the actress playing Kate is good enough and Aoife Duffin is superb here. She’s the best thing in the play in my opinion, which is what it needs. Kate is the centre of things, despite everyone’s attempts to push her to the periphery. Her sister, Bianca (Genevieve Hulme-Bulman), is given little to do but be the prize in a battle between three equally unappealing men. One of whom, Lucentio (Aaron Heffernan) falls in love with her on sight and then proceeds to come up with the sort of convoluted plan that only Shakespeare plays can get away with.
The first half of the play is much more comic than the second. Or rather Kate’s story becomes less comic in the second half than the first. I enjoyed the second half more than the first. In the interests of full disclosure, I came to this with two friends, one of whom left at the interval because he was bored. I stayed to the end and am glad I did because if I had left I’d have missed out of Aoife Duffin’s excellence.
Edward MacLiam’s Petruchio is a shouty, over-confident prick. It’s hard to see that he has any feelings for Kate beyond seeing her (and her breaking) as a challenge. I liked MacLiam’s performance but I’m not convinced there’s much to redeem Petruchio. Apparently John Fletcher, in 1611, wrote a play called The Tamer Tamed where the widowed Petruchio marries again and is on the receiving end of treatment similar to Kate’s thus is the Tamer Tamed, which suggests that contemporary audiences had some problems with the play themselves.
I’ve talked more about the play in general here than this production so let me say I mostly enjoyed it. The issues I have with it are more those I have with the play in general. It begins with a song, “Numbered in the Song”, which Kate sings. There are shoes on the stage but no cast. The cast will emerge and claim their shoes, which are to symbolise that old adage about how you can’t understand a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. The problem being, of course, that Petruchio never tries walking in Kate’s shoes.
The comedy is broad, with perhaps the most amusement coming from Imogen Doel’s Trannio, but the play as a whole just doesn’t do it for me. I’d argue even Shakespeare didn’t really enjoy it as he was to have another go at it (and do it better) with Much Ado About Nothing but what do I know.
I won’t be in a rush to see The Taming of the Shrew again but that’s not because of this production but because of the play itself. It’s just not one of my favourite Shakespeare plays having more to fault than favour but go see for yourself.
Image - Globe Theatre
The Taming of the Shrew is on until 6th August. For more info and to book tickets visit The Globe Theatre website.