Friday, 3 June 2016

Review The Taming Of The Shrew

The Taming Of The Shrew
by William Shakespeare

Plaything Of The Irish World

It's now the second Shakespeare in the new season at The Globe and a tough nut to crack this time. The Taming Of The Shrew is a play we'd only read rather than seen but, even on reading, it jumped out as a particularly sadistic piece on a par with The Merchant of Venice.

So Caroline Byrne's always interesting production with an all-Irish cast has grasped the mettle by setting it in 1916 southern Ireland, then still part of the British Empire. This gives "the shrew" Katherine a specific position as an educated woman in Irish society but also a wild young radical at what could, and should, have been a turning point for the equality of women in Ireland.

For Irish women who took part in the battle for Irish independence soon found themselves undermined, in a kind of compounded parallel to women in England forced away from jobs they carried out when the men were away in the First World War.

Now, for those who, unlike me, have not seen  Kiss Me Kate ;), a quick rundown of the play.

Katherine (Aoife Duffin) is the eldest daughter of Baptista (Gary Lilburn) and has intentionally put herself on the shelf with her shrewish behaviour.

Two suitors stolid Hortensio (Colin Gormley) and an elderly dandy-about-town, Gremio (Raymond Keane)  eagerly court her younger sister, the more agreeable Bianca (Genevieve Hulme-Beaman), but the catch is their merchant father Baptista won't release his younger child for marriage until the elder, his main heiress, is fixed up.

Meanwhile university student Lucentio (Aaron Heffernan), also smitten with Bianca, in league with servant Tranio (Imogen Doel) concocts a cunning plan. Lucentio is transformed into a mortar-boarded schoolmaster with James Joycean round glasses to tutor his beloved, while Tranio agrees to play his own master,  wooing Bianca with a deceived Baptista's consent, keeping the other suitors at bay. (Takes a breath!).

Meanwhile, rough and ready Petruchio (Edward MacLiam), having come into his inheritance after his Pa's death, arrives in town from his country estate, accompanied by servant Grumio (Helen Norton) ready to find a bride and wed. He separately comes to a compact with Bianca's suitors Hortensio and Gremio to marry and "tame" Katherine.

This version has blackened stage and a versatile, sometime symbolic, black and white split staircase designed by Chiara Stephenson and a band of Gaelic musicians (musical director Mark Bousie) on the balcony with traditional pipes, drum, mandolin and violin  

It cuts tinker Christopher Sly and the play-within-a-play from the start of the original The Taming Of The Shrew. Instead  we are faced with a wispily fragile and pained Katherine in white laundered high collared blouse and black skirt with velvet chevrons  perched on the front edge of the stage. She  sings a lament, bringing a note of Celtic haunting despair and almost a supernatural element.

Later labelled "stark mad or wondrous proud", she regrets the sidelining of women in the lyrics (by Morna Regan) as "not numbered in the song". This is the Ireland of James Joyce and John Millington Synge when the latter used folklore and subverted the caricature of the Irish peasant stereotype in his plays and where young middle and upper class women joined the men in political activism.

As her father Baptista enters, Katherine is seated on the floor against a pillar, a shock of hair drawn back from a peaky face, legs akimbo in her skirt - reading the Irish Times.  

And so it goes, her uncouth finger poking in her ear, a readiness to spit when moved to anger and, maybe far more deliberately and provocatively, a mannish propensity to scratch her front nether quarters.

But then she is not the only woman breaking boundaries. While Lucentio's servant Tranio is very much the cheeky man/boy with the Irish caricature profile, Petruchio's sidekick Grumio seems far more a woman disguised as a Sancho Panza servant.

As Petruchio's treatment of Katherine worsens, after her relieved father has forced her into marriage and her husband bundles her in a proprietorial cowhide to his rural cottage, Grumio seems more the housekeeper in trousers, obeying but not relishing her part in taming the slim wisp of a city girl.

The transposing of the play to Ireland on the brink of independence is carefully thought through and, on the main, works well. The Joycean men about town always willing to take a wager and the doltish peasants reminiscent of a Synge play and the Irish Literary Revival.

The Widow in conservative Catholic black (Amy Conroy) who finally gets her reward,  has also been sidelined but is hardly an ally of Katherine. Bianca, a far more womanly Ann Miller type, has her own schemes.

It does not make the starving of Kathrrine,  a wraith-like creature after her wedding kept in her white tattered bridal dress torn from its skirt hoops,  less sadistic. Indeed the womanly Grumio with her sad eyes comments mutely on the sorry situation.

But the city girl is given a nasty dose of life as a wife in rural Ireland,  with its dependence on the  beef trade and with a water well in the cottage floor. All this  to rid Katherine of her presumption in hindering the trade in marriage and dowries and daring to take part in newspaper debate.

Her new husband Petruchio is both the swaggering leather clad fighter farmer and the rueful awkward less educated lad, nevertheless always conscious he has the physical, and in his status as male, the upper hand, even when doubts assail him.

Meanwhile there's still plenty of bold costuming, visual comedy and slapstick played at a cracking pace. Plus surreal props such as an outsize mercantile abacus, Hortensio disguised as a Go-Compare violin tutor, Lucentio's father (Louis Dempsey)  becoming a victim of deliberate mistaken identity as his son's plans misfire.

Maybe the transposition is a little strained at times. After all, the feminist women of Ireland were more than one and there were men such as Francis Sheehy Skeffington  who took the part of the women.

But this is a mostly coherent take on The Taming Of the Shrew with Petruchio's and the men's boisterousness gradually turning to shame during Katherine's final speech of plausibly literate and carefully-chosen words, seemingly advocating subservience to the husband. It all mirrors perhaps the complex relationship of the Irish to their then colonial masters with its violence and compromises.   

In a not-quite-reversal even now as part of an independent state, Irish citizens resident in the UK have a vote in the EU referendum and the split staircase of Eire and Northern Ireland still poses a conundrum to be solved. So for this vivid and touching re-imagination of The Taming Of The Shrew, it's a green light from TLT.

[This was a preview performance] 

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