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The Taming of the Shrew: tragedy, comedy or farce?

Three recent productions at Shakespeare’s Globe highlight to the challenge of how to present Katherina’s submission

The Taming of the Shrew on tour

Source: Helena Miscioscia

If I be waspish, best beware my sting: the Globe’s recent productions have lent different interpretations to Katherina’s submission

The Taming of the Shrew
Directed by Joe Murphy
Shakespeare’s Globe
Touring in the UK, Europe and Asia until 13 October

Comes there any more of it?” asks Christopher Sly, a drunken tinker, at the end of the first scene of The Taming of the Shrew.

I know how he feels. In the past year or so there has been a veritable plague of Shrews: Propeller revived their bleak all-male version and sent it on tour, while Lucy Bailey’s production (the Royal Shakespeare Company’s third in a decade) relocated the action to a giant-sized bed and presented Katherina’s taming as foreplay. And Shakespeare’s Globe has recently hosted three different productions of The Shrew, plus a “Read Not Dead” rehearsed reading of the quarto text, The Taming of a (as opposed to the) Shrew.

Theatre audiences get the programming they deserve. If no one bought tickets, the play would quickly end up languishing in the Shakespearian doldrums alongside The Two Gentlemen of Verona and King John.

The saving grace of The Taming of the Shrew is that it demands that its audiences ask questions. It out-Brechts Brecht and – by giving away what happens in the title – encourages audiences to think about “How?” rather than “What?” It also supplies its very own resisting reader in the guise of Sly. In the quarto version, he carries on interrupting, dozing and complaining throughout the taming play before finally galloping off home enthusiastically, convinced he has learned how to tame Mrs Sly. Anyone who does not ask questions of the taming story puts themselves in the intellectual company of a drunken tinker.

Such a proto-Brechtian play should work particularly well on the Globe stage, where Sly could sit on the balcony watching, commentating and falling asleep. Of course, most Globe performances are routinely Brechtian; no one can ever get too caught up in the action surrounded by crying babies, military helicopters, fainters, people arriving late, people leaving early, people taking photos and, most entertaining of all, stewards bearing down enthusiastically on people taking photos.

But the three different Katherinas invite comparisons as well as questions, especially in relation to the traditional litmus test, Katherina’s final 40-line peroration on the duty a wife owes her husband. How this speech is delivered – as submission, as subversion, with a wink or as a suicide note – is in the gift of the performer and might conceivably change every night. And the three Katherinas posed very different questions of the speech as they stood on the Globe’s stage.

First off were Theatre Wallay, representing Pakistan in the Globe to Globe season in 2012. The action was relocated to 1970s Lahore and the relationship between Katherina and Petruchio combined powerful sexual attraction with a meeting of unconventional minds. The taming process was light touch, and during Katherina’s last speech, Petruchio rushed around assisting, helping to stage-manage the event. Nadia Jamil’s Katherina performed a “submission” that demonstrated her marriage was based on teamwork (and usefully challenged many British stereotypes about what it is to be a wife in Pakistan). Petruchio and Katherina both had their eyes on the extra money that was on offer if Katherina performed to order and they delivered with pizzazz.

The Taming of the Shrew on tour

Source: Helena Miscioscia

Director Haissam Hussain’s genial vision was greeted with enthusiastic applause and much laughter, especially from the older women in the predominantly Urdu-speaking audience. Critical here was the production’s version of Sly – Ravi, a female beggar/storyteller/mistress of ceremonies. With Ravi observing but also directing the action, the audience could be confident that nothing too terrible was going to happen to Katherina. But this Lollywood makeover did so good a job in rendering the play comfortable that it prompted the question of whether radical reconfiguration is the only way to render The Shrew enjoyable for a 21st-century London audience.

The next Globe Katherina, in a 2012 production directed by Toby Frow, was Samantha Spiro, a small Elizabethan spitfire who was far more humiliated and exhausted by her taming than Jamil’s. She started the play as a rejected child, with her father Baptista making it very clear he had no time for her. Katherina spectacularly demolished Baptista’s front door when her father locked her out, but her rampaging days were put to an end by her lanky Petruchio, Simon Paisley Day, who made her sing dodgy folk songs as well as starving her.

Katherina’s final speech reached beyond the realities of Shakespeare’s England into the present of the Globe audience. In the face of the Elizabethan legal and social odds stacked against women, Katherina gave up the fight; but Spiro then suddenly abandoned her onstage audience, moved to the front of the stage and directly addressed the paying audience in front of her, especially the women. After claiming equality with these women – “My heart hath been as big as one of yours” was directly addressed to them – this Katherina seemed to be challenging the groundlings as much as submitting to Petruchio: “Have you never given in for the sake of peace and quiet? Have you never shut up for the sake of your career? And how do you deal with a man who tries to micromanage you?”

The latest in the Globe’s recent hat-trick of Katherinas appeared in its 2013 touring, all-female production. This is not the first time that the Globe has produced an all-female Shrew; in 2003 the Amazonian Janet McTeer’s man-behaving-badly Petruchio – who performed a masterful imitation of a man pissing in the street – was pitched against the diminutive, risk-taking Katherina of Kathryn Hunter in a production directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Even with this utterly stellar line-up, some muttered that an all-female cast suggested school Shakespeare. But surely an all-female cast might also make a production more Brechtian, more in quotation marks? It might make The Shrew more feminist and at least it provides more jobs for female members of Equity than most performances of Shakespeare.

The 2013 all-female Globe Shrew, directed by Joe Murphy, is young, vibrant and very energetic. A troupe of circus-cum-music-hall-cum-strolling-players performs Katherina’s story for a Sly who dreams of dominance over his wife and who pre-empts the ending of the play by demanding his “wife” – actually Bartholomew the page – place her hand beneath his foot.

This production presents the taming as straightforward domestic abuse and Kate Lamb’s Katherina delivers her final speech as a despairing, desperate submission. She is still wearing her muddied, ruined wedding dress, and is a physical and emotional mess. She is psychologically battered by her treatment by Leah Whitaker’s Petruchio, but – despite the modern-dress setting – has nowhere else to go, so she speaks the words she is required to speak. The bleakness of Katherina’s speech renders Petruchio’s attempts to celebrate his victory palpably hollow. Indeed, unusually, the other married couples – Hortensio and his widow, Lucentio and Bianca – seem destined for far more happiness than Katherina and Petruchio.

Asked on Twitter about her interpretation of the final speech, Lamb said they had “tried to tell the story as written; a tragedy wrapped up in a comedy”. Yet she shifts quickly back from battered wife into strolling player/musician and the production’s musical finale reminds the audience of the play-within-a-play structure, which at least invites some critical distance.

Lamb has reported – and been retweeted by @EverydaySexism – that “people ask me ‘why SHE gives in’ after HE starves, sleep deprives and humiliates her. HER fault?” But the production presents a modern-dress Katherina who at several points in the action clearly could have escaped, indeed who appeared to consider leaving but who changed her mind. Surely audiences are bound to ask why such a Katherina stays, as well as why she submits, when there seems to be no reason why she shouldn’t instead walk out and relocate to a lesbian commune?

So many questions, so many Katherinas, so many Shrews: “Comes there any more of it?”

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