Review: THE TAMING OF THE SHREW

by Lynn on June 12, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Festival Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Chris Abraham
Designed by Julie Fox
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Composed and Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Starring: Sarah Afful
Ben Carlson
Deborah Hay
Peter Hutt
Cyrus Lane
Gordon S. Miller
Sarah Orenstein
Tom Rooney
Mike Shara
Michael Spencer-Davis
Brian Tree

A deeply thought, lively, moving production that challenges our preconceptions.

The Story. Baptista has two daughters. Bianca is the youngest and probably his favourite and Katherina, the eldest and an ill-tempered, violent, shrew. Katherina bedevils her sister; rails at her father and insults everybody else. No one dares get within five feet of her.

Suitors come to ask Baptista for Bianca’s hand in marriage but he refuses saying she can’t marry until he finds a husband for Katherina. This is offensive to Katherina (she doesn’t want to get married anyway) and feels she is being humiliated. She reacts, as she always does, in fury.

But then along comes Petruchio, on his travels looking for adventure. When he learns of Katherina’s dowry he decides to marry her. The marriage deal is done between Petruchio and Baptista. Katherina has no say in the matter. I would think that would keep a woman in a bad mood for a long time.

Petruchio and Katherina meet, verbally spar, she smacks him in the face, twice, until he grabs her hands, pulls her to him and says, “I swear I’ll cuff you, if you strike again.” They spar some more. They physically wrangle, he trying to hold her, she trying to get away. She spits in his face. Petruchio is determined that he is the only husband for her and that he will tame her.

On the wedding day he’s late. Katherina is embarrassed and humiliated. Petruchio is deliberately dressed like a disheveled bum. They marry. He literally carries her off after their wedding to take her to his place. They have a mishap on the way in which they fall in the mud and arrive at his place filthy and exhausted.

Petruchio is in a rage that nothing is according to his orders when he gets there. No one meets them. The house is a mess. He orders food which he then refuses because he says it’s burnt. He smacks his servants. Katherina looks appalled and tries to intervene: “Patience, I pray you, ‘twas a fault unwilling.” She tries to reason with him about the food. A servant puts it in perspective: “He kills her in her own humour.” He denies her food, sleep and drink. And he also denies himself the same too in order to change her attitude and ways.

A while later Petruchio and Katherina return to Baptista’s for Bianca’s wedding. He continues his process of ‘taming her’. He says the moon is up. She says it’s daylight. He insists. She does too. He says she is crossing him and they have to return home. She finally agrees. He switches up a few more times until she enters into the game and agrees with him. And there is affection. (“Come on and kiss me, Kate.”)

At Baptista’s house Katherina is obviously changed, calm, cool, intelligent and formidable. Petruchio sees how the other newly married couples behave; how the wives are disdainful and how the husbands respond. Petruchio makes a wager that he can command Katherina to leave what she is doing in another room and she will come to him. The others make wagers about their wives too. It’s here that Katherina gives her famous speech about a wife’s duty to her husband—full of irony, wit, and humour. It’s also the place where we see that Petruchio and Katherina are both devoted to each other and are equal partners.

The Production. On stage we see a rack of costumes with a beautiful wedding dress in front of it. The wonderful actor Tom Rooney comes out to introduce himself and says he plays Tranio and to banter with the audience. Then Deborah Hay, who plays Katherina comes out and says she will sing a traditional song and begins. Director Chris Abraham establishes immediately that this is a play—it’s all play acting.

But then there is a commotion and the proceedings are disrupted. Far house right, on the aisle, a clod with a cell-phone is texting. I can see the glowing light. So can two ushers who stand by him. The ushers stay there a long time. They clod is giving them a hard time. They get him out of his seat to remove him but instead of going up the aisle, they go down towards the stage. I’m laughing. It’s a set up.

The clod is now loudly protesting his treatment. He says he’s a blogger. I’m roaring. He says his name is Christopher Sly. One thing leads to another and he’s slugged unconscious. Those on stage will play a joke on him; dress him up in costume and convince him that he is involved in a play—and that’s how we begin this play within a play. The Christopher Sly scene is often cut to give way to the real meat of the play. Not here. That’s fine. (interestingly the production does not end with Christopher Sly waking up and realizing it was not all a dream) The clod is really Ben Carlson. He plays Christopher Sly and later Petruchio.

Chris Abraham has directed a a keenly thought, very energetic, athletic production. As Katherina, Deborah Hay is as likely to jump on a man’s back to try and strangle him as she is eager to smack his face. The early scenes with Ben Carlson as Petruchio are particularly fearless, with her legs around his neck while she is contorted in his lap. The word-play between the two of them is like watching two ping-pong champions bating the ball back and forth with equal skill. Carlson’s Petruchio is likely to laugh at the goings on because Petruchio sees that Katherina has a keen sense of humour under all that anger.

Hay does not play Katherina as a harridan but as a totally frustrated woman trapped in a world of archaic practices. She has one way of being heard and noticed and that’s through anger and making people afraid of her violent outbursts.

When Petruchio seems to stand her up at her own wedding, the humiliation on her face is heartbreaking. This is a feeling that has simply defeated her. After the wedding, at Petruchio’s house she’s not violent anymore. But it is Petruchio who acts as she did before in order to make his point—to inform her with her own former behaviour. Gradually when she sees Petruchio and his games playing—it’s the sun, no it’s the moon—she plays along and indicates it with her own wit and dare one say it, good humour. Carlson’s command of the language and poetry is exquisite. There is such variation in his performance as Petruchio shifts and bobs with Katherina.

The scene when Petruchio wagers that Katherina can beat the other wives for obedience when he sends a servant to fetch Katherina and commands that she come to him, is beautifully directed and acted. Petruchio stands downstage facing the audience. Carlson looks pensive as Petruchio. We wait a long time for her to make her entrance and when she finally does Petruchio closes his eyes in a silent thank you. Up to then he was sure of Katherina but not completely sure.

While he is now confident, he is not cocky. She gracefully, graciously curtsys to him “What is your will, sir…” When he tells her to get the other wives who have up to then refused to come, he tells her to swinge them (thrash them) in order to get them in the room. She looks at him, and turns with a flip of her head that is so full of humour and impishness then you know she gets the joke and so does he. A delicious moment in this stunning production.

When she returns with the wives she gives her famous and tricky speech about how a woman must revere her husband and be dutiful. The line: “And place your hands below your husband’s foot.” Is such a tricky line. Usually the actress playing Katherina bends down and places her hand on the floor and the actor playing Petruchio rushes over to take her hands and lift her up to standing.

Not here. Deborah Hay stands straight, looks at Petruchio and holds out her arm with her hand straight out to him and says….”My hand is ready to, may it do him ease.” Bingo. They are equal partners and they both know it. They have both tamed the other. And when he says, “Come on, and kiss me, Kate” There is no hesitation, no embarrassment, just passionate love.

Comment. The Taming of the Shrew is perhaps Shakespeare’s most rankling, unsettling play. I know, The Merchant of Venice is right up there, but it doesn’t effect half the population as The Taming of the Shrew does. Shrew appears to be misogynistic; men browbeating and humiliating a woman. Initially Petruchio tells Kate that she is his possession, like a house or thing. As is always the case with Shakespeare things are never that cut and dried and things never appear what they seem. For instance, while one may rail at the treatment of women in the play you can’t deny that Katherine is the only one who hits anyone in the first few acts of the play. Petruchio hits his servants later, This kind of behaviour is not like him, but he is making a point. Petruchio doesn’t so much ‘tame’ Katherina as much as he removes all reasons for her to be angry and violent. In its place she has another way of expressing herself—with a rapier wit, humour, a nimble mind and absolute calm. As a raging shrew, no matter how justified her anger, people stop listening. As this calm, formidable woman, she is compelling.

The play is a challenge, but this stunning, beautifully directed and acted production rises to the occasion, upends preconceived notions about it and makes you think deeper.

The Stratford Festival Presents:

Run: June 5-October 10, 2015
Running Time: 3 hours.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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