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May 27, 2012

The Taming of the Shrew (Theatre Wallay) @ Shakespeare's Globe

"This is a sacred space" announced Salman Shahid, introducing Theatre Wallay's Globe to Globe production of The Taming of the Shrew. For the first time that I've seen in a Globe to Globe production, a member of the company came onto the stage to introduce the play and the company's honour at being here, before asking the musicians to play the Pakistani national anthem, to which a predominantly Urdu-speaking audience stood to attention. The joy and pride apparently felt by the company in being at the Globe translated into a confident, hysterical and moving performance, offering one of the finest Shrew I've yet seen.

In contemporary dress and peppered with modern jokes (one of Ghazi's (Gremio's) attempts to trump the offer of the disguised Mir (Tranio) involved promising a five-year entry visa to the UK), this was nonetheless surprisingly faithful to Shakespeare's play. Only a few of the extraneous servants at Petruchio's house were omitted, and for much of the play a non-Urdu speaker could follow the familiar play line-for-line. Yet a story of multiple suitors wooing a patriarch for the hands of his daughters rang true within this particular setting, taking on a tone of witty self-deprecation and boastful vaunting that made this a playful Shrew. Recent English-language productions have had a tendency to ramp up the explicit sex and violent comedy (see Propeller and the last two RSC versions), but this company brilliantly played the comedy straight, reading the play not as farce but as banter and romance, played against a painted backdrop of flying kites.

Key to this was Nadia Jamil's Qurat ul Aine, or Karin (Katherina). Karin was no monster, but a lively and independent daughter, who in an early scene with Karen David's Bina (Bianca) was more sinned against than sinning, as Bina first broke Karin's kite, then tussled with her over a shawl before going crying to Daddy when Shahid's Mian Basheer (Baptista) entered. Karin managed herself through threat rather than action, but straightaway established herself as an equal of Omair Rana's Rustam (Petruchio). As she walked around him, she allowed the audience to see her instant attraction, blowing out her cheeks and shaking her hands in approval, before composing herself as she came back into his line of sight. Their initial trading of barbs was full of laughter, the two delighting in their verbal sparring and enjoying the conflict. As Rustam crossed a line, however, Karin hit him twice in the face and took a knee to his groin, leaving him sprawled, but her shocked as he continued with his wooing regardless.

The openness of Karin contrasted with the conniving nature of Bina, who left Umer Naru's Qazim (Lucentio) hanging from a pillar, reaching out in longing. Bina was under no illusion as to the hold she had over men, sashaying between her two disguised teachers and demonstrating her superior prowess with language and music, clearly enjoying the chase. Her spoilt attitude (revealed further by her habit of sticking out tongues behind her father's back) left her in control of her relationships; but rather than contrast with another serious power imbalance, this production allowed her manipulation to be juxtaposed with Karin and Rustam's attempts to find an equal partnership.

The taming itself remained problematic. Karin was angry and embarrassed by Rustam turning up topless to the wedding, with Hamza Kamal's Sifarish (Grumio) riding a hobby horse; and the return to Rustam's country house sat oddly within the context of the production. Karin was slowly denied food, and the on-stage musicians played discordantly as she danced a slow, sad, weak dance. There was a lot to recover from, and the production risked its own playfulness at this point as it offered something more severe. However, what emerged was Karin's realisation of Rustam's genuine affection for her, and her understanding that everything was a joke, including the tailor. As they debated the nature of the sun and the moon, or the sex of Daud Randle's Waqaruddin (Vincentio), she began buying into the game, laughing at Rustam as much as at herself, and enjoyed trading jokes with him.

The playfulness underpinning the performance was explicitly pointed to throughout by Maria Khan's Ravi, linked to Sly in the programme notes but actually an entirely original character, who acted as Chorus and commentary throughout. For most of the production she danced around the edges of the action, leading characters on by pulling on an imaginary rope, exchanging high fives with Rustam or leading the suitors in moments of choreographed steps. There was no clear thematic purpose to the role, but she added colour and vibrancy, as well as playing with the spectators. While not exactly an audience surrogate, her knowing relationship added localised humour to specific scenes, such as her ridiculous fake disguise as Tajir (the Merchant) when she was pulled out of the crowd, and her appeals to the audience as the tailor.

Beyond the innovations were some wonderful straight performances among the suitors. Ghazi (Mukkaram Kaleem) was bent double with age yet had an almost childlike voice at times of extreme pressure, whether cackling over the indignities suffered by his rivals or screaming as hoisted up and twirled round by an exuberant Rustam. The standout performance, however, came from Osman Khalid Butt as Hasnat (Hortensio). This preening, energetic, frenetic man won over the audience early on with his witty deprecation of Ghazi, his cowardly withdrawal from Karin and, wearing a guitar round his head, his impassioned recounting of his beating at Karin's hands. As he pursued Bina with a rose towards the play's end, only to see her leaving with Qazim, both man and flower wilted, and he was pursued by a sympathetic chorus from the audience as he trudged offstage, finally beaten. His reappearance with the dragged-up and disdainful Begum (Hamza Kamal as the Widow) was a fittingly humorous conclusion to his arc.

While much of the detail of the jokes was lost in translation, this performance demonstrated the effectiveness of simple proxemics and voice work to carry an international language of comedy. The snappy back and forth between Ghazi and Mir (Ahmed Ali) as they traded offers for Bina was fast and competitive, Ravi running back and forth between the two before declaring Mir the victor, to rapturous applause.The fast-paced series of confusions between Vincentio, the Merchant and the disguised Tranio ended in chaos, with Vincentio finally latching onto the (real) Lucentio with an embrace equally weighted between relief and desperation. And Baptista's continual exasperation with his daughters was universally recognisable.

Yet the play had one final, more serious, trick to play. The bets of the final scene were played straight, with an emphasis on the bragging of the males and the exclusion of the women from the table. As Syed Abbas Hussain's Biru (Biondello) reported in turn the refusal of Bina and Begum to come to the table, Qazim and Hasnat banged their heads in shame. But Karin came freely and shared raised eyebrows with her husband, waiting to see what his play was. Bringing the women back out, she delivered her instructions for women as a double-act with Rustam. He raised her onto a small dais, and the two mimed the stages of a relationship, including demonstrating violence followed by both turning the other cheek. As she talked about being a servant to her husband, he in turn rubbed her feet or yielded way to her. Dancing a short, sweet routine that mapped out their past and future relationship, this Shrew discovered the unity in the speech which perhaps native-language performances have ignored or been unable to find: it was a speech advocating the importance of real, practical kindness and generosity in pursuing happiness. And on that note, the production ended with more glorious dancing and repeated encores from a jubilant audience.

March 14, 2012

The Taming of the Shrew (RSC) @ Nottingham Theatre Royal

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The Taming of the Shrew carries a great deal of baggage with it. The gender politics that are inevitably foregrounded in production (is this inevitable? Are there other issues that are being obscured?) are read through the identity of the director, through our own filters of acceptable behaviour, and through our conflicted desires to enjoy a comedy and condone misogyny. In recent years, as in the last RSC production and that of Propeller, the tendency has been to ramp up the comedy of the play as far as possible, either to subvert it through unexpectedly dark moments or to turn the whole play into an openly performative satire of extreme behaviours on both sides. Lucy Bailey's touring production for the RSC fell squarely into this latter character, with an exhaustingly energetic romp that nonetheless provoked some difficult questions.

This Shrew functioned as extended foreplay, with emphasis on the "play". The entire set was an enormous bed, raking sharply up towards the enormous headboard, and made up with sheets. Pillows became playful weapons, wielded with varying levels of frustration or humour, and characters romped under the sheets. The intent was clear - sex was always the ultimate end point of this production, and everything that led up to it was negotiation.

The long Induction introduced Nick Holder's repulsive Sly, an enormous and bedraggled drunkard who farted, belched and gurned his way around the stage. In the opening, he was turfed out of an offstage bar by Janet Fullerlove's Marian Hacket, who became a semi-demonic figure, snarling like a dog and savaging the prostrate drunkard in a bizarre dream sequence. When Sly was awoken by the lords and persuaded that he was, himself, a lord, he refused to take on any decorum, simply stuffing the fine foods into his mouth and barking gleeful orders. The wonderful Hiran Abeysekera played Bartholomew, and was genuinely entertaining, revelling in the teasing aspects of his role as Sly's 'Wife', but then panicking quietly as the rest of the lords ran off to leave them alone. His attempts to flee the stage were rebuffed by attendants who threw him bodily back on, and it was left to Bartholomew's wits to ensure that Sly - already limbering up for what would perhaps be an overambitious exertion - kept his clothes on.

The two settled to watch a play, which was delivered for most of the first half as much to the onstage audience as to the Nottingham crowd. In between scenes, Sly and Bartholomew engaged in extended bedplay, getting under the sheets and playing chase games beneath them, usually ending in Sly losing his pants, being confronted by the demonic Hostess, or being denied his pillows, before resuming his seat. Sly's spectatorship translated into a preoccupation with watching and being watched throughout the play, and our complicity in what we watch. As Kate and Bianca fought with pillows, a leering Sly jumped up and joined in. As Petruchio's servants gathered, a pants-less Sly ran about the stage cackling, covering his genitals with a handy saucepan. This onstage audience slowly disappeared though, Sly becoming invisible by the play's second half, apart from a brief appearance when he ran across the stage drunkenly repeating "I'm a lord!" The gradual loss of the onstage audience perhaps indicated an intent to slip into a simpler relationship with the play world, at the cost of the critical awareness that the dual frame offered.

Spectatorship also informed the main play's opening, as Lisa Dillon's Kate was paraded in to slow folk music and a cackling audience. The production was roughly set in rural Italy of the 1940s, but the misogynist parade enacted here was perhaps more reminiscent of Tudor England - a woman led by a rope, neck and wrists encased in a shrew's fiddle. Assembled townspeople jeered at Kate, who humbly accepted her torment. As she was released, however, she knelt on the floor, and then punched her gaoler hard in the crotch. She then single-handedly proceeded to take on the entire town: throttling, punching, kicking and throwing the men, who both railed and laughed at her, turning her rage into the equivalent of a bear-baiting. Sly, predictably, whistled and clapped along. The fight ended, however, with her exhausted and seated, burned out by her activity.

Dillon's Kate aimed to shock in everything she did. Smoking and drinking hard throughout the play, mooning onlookers and utilising casual violence were only some of the more obvious tricks in her arsenal. More interesting was her aggressive sexuality, which she used to embarrass the men around her as she mimed masturbation on the floor or pulled a petrified Hortensio towards her. Kate was intent on doing everything that this patriarchal society disapproved of her doing; yet it was carried out with an air bordering on the desperate, her isolation becoming apparent in the moments of quiet when she ran out of energy. Her mocking mimicry of Elizabeth Cadwallader's hypocritical whining Bianca was spot-on (particularly as Bianca stuck up fingers at her when Baptista looked the other way), but implied also Kate's awareness of her own isolation and lack of acceptance.

The Taming of the Shrew

David Caves was another troubled soul. Petruchio was cast deliberately tall and young, the actor physically imposing (and clearly strong) but also without the restraint learned through experience. He and the tiny Grumio (Simon Gregor) adopted a "Basil and Manuel" relationship, the taller man slapping his diminutive servant over the head while the servant ran chaotically about the stage. The two were both hard drinkers, travellers with few social mores. Their appearance in the farcicial wedding sequence gave perhaps the best representation of their libertine lifestyle - arriving drunk, topless and tattooed, Grumio with an enormous phallus in his longjohns and Petruchio bellowing loudly, the two looked like the last men standing on a student rugby team's night out.

The dynamic between Petruchio and Kate was fascinating from the word go. Deeply sexually attracted to one another, the two engaged in a physical and verbal sparring contest cast explicitly as foreplay. Kate pulled out her usual tricks, and was shocked when Petruchio refused to back down. I would have liked to see a little more critique here, as there was something deeply troubling about watching a woman's means of establishing power stripped away from her through his physical presence, but by and large it worked effectively as a means of casting their struggle. As he refused to back down, she resorted to more extreme means. She realised she had made a mistake as soon as she slapped him, the mood turning dark for a moment as his voice dropped. Shortly after, however, she attempted to disgust him even further by lifting her skirt and peeing openly on the bedsheets. Again, he stood and accepted it. If reading generously, the production seemed to suggest the power of a connection where one partner accepts the other unconditionally; however, the commercial framing still served to cast this within a framework of male economic privilege.

When moved to Petruchio's country house, the taming became more traditional, and also perhaps more problematic. After being denied food, Kate paused, and then began scrabbing at Petruchio's pants, driven by a sexual hunger in place of her appetite. Kate's sexuality had been foregrounded throughout, but to have her driven so apparently compulsively towards sex with her torturer appeared to imply that, in fact, all she really needed was a good shag. The fact that Petruchio then denied her what she wanted was perhaps intended to prove to the audience that he wouldn't take advantage of her; but equally served once more to deny her agency or expression. This was the most problematic aspect of the taming, and concerned me for the implication that female sexuality was part of what needed to be brought under control during the taming.

Among the rest of the cast were several highlights. Sam Swainsbury was wonderfully dapper as Hortensio, putting down a napkin every time he sat on the floor and reacting with horror to dirt and disorder. In disguise as the French music tutor, he was all arms, legs and drawling sufferance. Huss Garbiya also had a great impact as Biondello, a particularly simple servant with an energetic approach to the role. Bianca and Gavin Fowler's Lucentio, meanwhile, served to parody the main plot with an appeal towards sentimental stereotyping (prancing together offstage, walking arm in arm etc.) which was undercut with glimpses of the two rutting unceremoniously behind shutters as Hortensio finally surrendered his claim.

Bailey's productions have a habit of showcasing the follies of male behaviour (despite the fact that these follies are themselves perpetuated primarily on stage rather than in any other medium), and this production was no exception. The casual slapstick violence and drunken sexuality of the male characters remained at one level for most of the production, with very little variation, making this an exhausting and sometimes monotonous watch - as funny as it was, variety of tone would have been preferable, particularly in the second act where there seemed to be very little by way of development. However, when the male parody worked, it was extremely amusing - John Marquez's affected Mediterranean Tranio and David Rintoul's old school military man Gremio played their financial contest with increasingly exaggerated references to their own genitalia, physically turning the money comparisons into a battle that could only be resolved with a ruler.

The proof of Shrew inevitably comes in Kate's final speech, and this was where the production had failed to adequately lay ground, the scenes of her taming remaining at too consistent a level of gruding compliance, until the kiss in the street where the two seemed finally to connect. The final speech was delivered with initial frustration but growing passion, played as a paeon to compromise and sociability. It ended with her appealing to Petruchio and kneeling before him. He stood, taken aback, and then knelt in turn before her, kissing her feet, in a pleasing gesture towards reciprocity. The two then began frantically tearing off their clothes and ran upstage to get under the sheets and finally consummate their marriage. The journey may have been problematic, but the conclusion rang true, casting the play as the necessary process of groundwork for an energetic and equal relationship. The return to the Sly frame added little to the play, as Sly was returned to the open and had money scattered over him for the Hostess to subsequently come across him. However, this was largely an energetic and amusing Shrew that made a strong stab at finding both comedy and a sense of equality in its resolution.

May 28, 2008

The Taming of the Shrew @ The Courtyard Theatre

Irish director Conall Morrison made waves in Stratford last year with his violently explicit production of Macbeth, a flawed but compelling show that demonstrated his fascination with sexual abuse and the blurring of lines between dark comedy and outrage. It is little surprise, then, that this uncompromising director has been invited back to Stratford to helm the RSC’s new Shrew, a play which has allowed him to explore these fascinations further in another production that will no doubt stimulate great debate.

The elongated modern-day induction set the tone for the relentless visual and aural assault that lasted throughout the play, throwing the audience immediately into a lads-night-out in the city, with banging house music, traffic cones, mooning and a parody of the All-Blacks’ pre-match haka. The female characters, a leather-clad Hostess and a pole-dancer, added to the barrage of sexist stereotypes: this was a world seen through the misogynist eyes of the drunken Christopher Sly, stumbling through the scene.

A great amount of off-text story was added to the induction, with the Hostess making a garbled phone call to the Lady (the part played female), as a result of which the Lady ordered the drunken Sly to be picked out of the trash and carried home. This set up implied the trick was to be a kind of punishment/rehabilitation for Sly’s treatment of the Hostess, a trick which the Lady continued to oversee throughout, occasionally appearing on stage in order to cue a lighting change or similar. Sly himself was introduced into the action to play Petruchio, starting with a script but quickly discarding it and making the play his own. This caused problems however, in that it was never clear quite what the purpose of the inner play was meant to be. Far from being educational, Sly gradually took over the play, building in his violent attitudes and taking it to a dark place from which, at the very end, the players withdrew in disgust. Quite why Sly had been allowed into a position where he could act out his misogynist fantasies was inexplicable.

Confused framing device aside, the inner play was busy, full of interest and often very funny. A backdrop of swivelling panels depicted Padua and the players (who had appeared out of the back of a truck with the number-plate XME-K8) built a set out of micro-sized Italian buildings, donned renaissance costumes and hammed it up gloriously with performances so pantomimic that the audience was carried along by the party atmosphere.

It was interesting to see that the emphasis on knockabout comedy and farce, (the programme indicated a debt to the commedia dell’arte) pushed several of the supporting roles, such as Hortensio, Gremio and Tranio, into far greater prominence. Drawing inspiration from silent movies and Hollywood swashbucklers, the various suitors circled each other when they met, declaiming their threats with dastardly pomp. Sean Kearns as Hortensio was particularly strong in this respect, almost a villain with his deep voice and narrowed eyes. Lucentio, by contrast, was the ‘hero’ of the piece, the orchestra playing a swelling theme to accompany his heroic stance as he gazed into the distance after the receding Bianca – no cliché went unused. Most amusing were the accents adopted by characters as they disguised themselves to further their plans. Lucentio became Welsh and Hortensio became Northern, but Keir Charles’ Tranio stole the show as the fake Lucentio with a ludicrously false and exaggerated plummy London gent accent so bad that every time he opened his mouth he drew all attention onto himself. This was only topped for gusto by Larrington Walker who, as a black English Pedant, reverted to a shocking Jamaican stereotype when pretending to be Vincentio, which Biondello and Tranio were then forced to adopt in turn. Horribly un-PC, but the energy and sheer ridiculousness of what we were witnessing earned Walker a spontaneous round of applause from a delighted audience.

Subtlety was not a factor here. Bianca, played by Amara Khan, was another male fantasy figure, the demure yet slyly sexual girl in a pink dress with overspilling cleavage that Lucentio couldn’t keep his eyes off. Upon finally coming together, any pretence at romance was dismissed and the two engaged in a distasteful and unfunny montage of sexual positions just offstage while Hortensio and Tranio withdrew their stakes. Biondello drew most of his laughs from a habit of running into walls and the real Vincentio, played by the elderly Leonard Fenton, shrugged off the officers who tried to arrest him by suddenly turning into a casual martial arts expert and throwing the officers across the stage. It was crude and occasionally offensive, but all conducted with an unabashed enthusiasm and shamelessness that saved the show.

Against this farcical backdrop was set Petruchio and Kate’s story, which took a very different tone. Michelle Gomez’s Kate was an isolated and hurt figure, who lashed out at her father for lavishing his attention on Bianca. Her extreme violence to the men around her came across as a response to what she perceived as neglect. Petruchio, meanwhile, was a more sophisticated version of Sly, walking with a pronounced swagger. Their first meeting instantly declared how the relationship would develop. Kate reacted violently to Petruchio’s words, and Petruchio responded through physical restraint. However much she kicked and struggled, Petruchio repeatedly overpowered her and bore her down. Gomez in particular excelled here. Her face showed genuine panic and fear when restrained and helpless, but as soon as she broke free she reverted to her usual defence mechanisms of violence and withering put-downs. Petruchio remained calm throughout, breaking down her strength as he physically forced himself upon her. The struggle of a woman to maintain the independent strength so important to her was a powerful one.

Kate’s attempts to test the limits of Petruchio’s patience were repeatedly rebuffed. In a rare moment of on-stage quiet, Kate asked him to stay for the wedding dinner “If you love me”. The onlookers on stage fell deadly silent as they watched Petruchio slowly walk towards her as if to kiss her, before pulling away at the final moment and robbing her of even a small victory. Upon removal to the country his cruelty worsened, leaving Kate crawling faintly on the floor in a dirty smock. The treatment was mirrored in Petruchio’s appalling violence towards Grumio, an excellent and disturbed Will Beck, who was often left bleeding or vomiting on the floor after Petruchio’s attacks. The abuse of Kate was upsetting and Morrison, so keen to provoke elsewhere, pulled no punches in getting his message across. Petruchio’s treatment of his wife was simply cruel and abhorrent.

The final famous speech delivered before the dinner party began calmly, but as Kate continued she became more tired and defeated-looking, a shadow of her former self. Petruchio then kissed her forcibly, but she didn’t respond and instead simply went limp. This horrible sight impacted far more than her words, and was immediately followed up to its extreme. As the play drew to its close, Petruchio then laid Kate down on the floor and started undressing himself while she lay still unresponsive. This moment, bordering on rape, became too much, and the players finally broke out of their performance, pushing Sly off the actress playing Kate and packing up the entire set, removing it back into their truck. Sly himself had his robes removed and was left alone onstage, almost naked and shivering (an ending lifted, along with several other elements of the show, from Propeller's 2006 production.

This deeply uncomfortable ending, while on one level showing Petruchio receive a sort of comeuppance by losing his lordly title, threw up several problems. Why was Petruchio allowed to steer events so far? Why did the actors only intervene at this stage, rather than earlier in the abuse of Kate? Why did the Lady’s household all go with the players into their truck? And was Kate meant to be an actress, the Hostess of the induction or a real ‘Kate’? The framing device in many ways spoiled the play, raising several awkward questions about the nature of the inner play as a performance that weren’t addressed by the director.

This was a shame, as the inner play in itself was an interesting and sometimes insightful piece that demonstrated, by negative example, the evils of domestic abuse while also providing moments of enjoyable and riotous comedy. The performers put in an enormous amount of hard work and energy, and were rewarded by an extremely appreciative audience who laughed throughout. It had serious problems, but those problems are ripe for ongoing discussion and didn’t take away from the fact that it was an entertaining three hours in the theatre.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.