The Taming of the Shrew, dir. Małgorzata Warsicka for Lodz Film School at Studyjny Theatre in Łódź, Poland. January – March 2014.
Reviewed by Magdalena Cieślak
When the Lodz Film School took up The Taming of the Shrew for their Acting Department diploma performance, it was imperative for me to go and see it. Partly, to compare it with the production of Teatr Jaracza (see Agnieszka Rasmus’s review), but partly for the sake of the venue. Studyjny Theatre, now the site of the Lodz Film School, has always been one of my favourite theatres: ambitious, avant-garde, on the fringe. Back in high school, I would compulsively go there, just two blocks from my school. I still remember some of the amazing productions that made a tremendous impact on me.
The Taming of the Shrew premiered in November 2013, and I went to see it in January 2014, and then again in March. It only got better, darker, and sharper.
For starters, there was the Induction, and it set up the direction in which the performance would head. Its key moment was when Sly was introduced to Bartholomew, his supposed wife. Bartholomew was played by an actor who looked rather masculine, and in the earlier performances was sporting a beard (fig. 1). His pink dress was undone at the back and he was clumsily struggling to keep it on. As Sly was making his decisive advances upon him, it became more and more clear that Bartholomew, insecure from the very moment he had turned up in that dress, was feeling increasingly threatened. While the rest of the party were having great fun, he was not sharing the joke. He, or the woman he was, was the first victim of patriarchal power and sexual violence. Sly even pulled down the dress that Bartholomew was desperately holding on to, a foreshadowing of future violent sexual acts. It was with some regret that the Lord eventually stopped the jostling between Sly and Bartholomew, saving Bartholomew from Sly’s forceful actions. The Induction showed that in the performance the fun would always be at someone’s expense, and that the jokes would not be subtle. It also pointed to the problem of violence, sexual abuse, and power games.
For the beginning of the play proper an excellent formal device was used. When Sly left the stage to seemingly sit in the audience, other actors entered and began a warm up, doing physical and voice exercises. Then, the scenes of Lucentio’s arrival in Padua and the introduction of Baptista, his daughters and their suitors were separated by blackouts and the actors played not to each other but to the back of the audience, as if they were performing for Sly seated back there. It was a very interesting ploy referencing the play’s metatheatricality, and it provided a smooth transition from Sly’s ranting to the world of the play.
When Petruchio, obviously played by the same actor as Sly, and Grumio finally arrived on stage, they were both heavily hung-over. But it did not look like the night before they had both had a great time. There was a very strange tension between them, hinting that the master-servant relation was quite abusive, possibly even sexually. Nothing was shown directly, but the Petruchio-Grumio dynamic was central to the production, and there were a few cross-references that clicked in later which signaled how toxic their relationship was.
With Katherina and the prospective marriage in the picture, the master-servant relationship got further complicated by the presence of another victim – the woman. The person to take most advantage of it was Grumio. He was present in the scene of Petruchio “courting” Katherina, which made her visibly cornered. Her father left her alone with two men, and Grumio’s silent observation was even more threatening than Petruchio’s vulgar banter. Although she seemed to be sharper and quicker, she was physically overpowered by the two men (fig. 2). The drama of her powerlessness as a woman was also stressed in the confrontation with Baptista. When Petruchio was bluffing about Katherina’s love and consent for the wedding, she was looking at her father pleadingly, hoping he would not believe the lunatic. But she was dismissed; the father chose to believe his story and allowed for the wedding. Katherina was visibly scared, while Petruchio was quite surprised, as he did not expect Baptista to take his side.
From then on, Petruchio grew wilder and more daring as he realized the extent of his power. Grumio, in turn, was clearly enjoying the fact that his master was now abusing someone else. After the wedding there was a moment when the whole party realized the seriousness of the situation. Katherina wanted to stay for the reception and when Petruchio opposed, she confidently sought her father’s support. This time it was clear that Baptista wanted to help her, but Petruchio’s speech on ownership and possession put things in the right perspective: Baptista, together with the audience, was made to see that he had sold his child to a drunken bully and, much as he might have regretted it, there was nothing to be done about it. That painful awareness was seen in Baptista’s face, giving this otherwise rather unpleasant character a touch of sympathy.
Yet, the real horrors were only about to start as Katherina, Petruchio and Grumio arrived in Verona. Petruchio’s taming strategy was to violently attack Grumio, which made Katherina feel she should team up with the abused one, especially when things got physically rough. It was only because she started defending Grumio that Petruchio had a go at her. When Petruchio left the room, Katherina turned to Grumio in an instinct of victim solidarity, hoping that they might join sides against the abusive behavior of their master. This was, however, the moment of ultimate abuse; her hopes were ruthlessly destroyed when Grumio indicated to her that he would bring her food in return for a sexual favour. In the later performance he attempted to rape her but was interrupted by Petruchio’s entrance. The audience then realized something that Katherina did not quite yet comprehend – that Petruchio and Grumio were playing a perverse power game, and that Petruchio’s treatment of Grumio was an element of his taming of Katherina (fig. 3). She was fooled into defending Grumio, who was another abuser. Once that was made clear, Grumio became openly impudent. In the performance’s finale he even got himself a servant toy of his own – for Bianca’s wedding he appeared with Tranio on a leash. This scene was perhaps the strongest reference to the possibility of sexual abuse between Petruchio and Grumio signaled during their first appearance.
The conclusion to Katherina and Petruchio’s story was brutally bitter. On the way to Bianca’s wedding the training was completed. Katherina started referring to herself as Kate to show that she had understood the position in which she was. She delivered her final speech at the wedding with crude irony, on the verge of tears (fig. 4). Her message was that one could achieve absolutely anything by force, and that women were totally helpless and powerless. When Petruchio approached her, she left the stage, defeated and desperate. But then the performance offered its final twist. Petruchio, the winner, turned to the guests to see they were no longer the wedding party but the hunting party from the Induction. Confused, he looked around, but the Lord and his men left as well, laughing at Sly’s stupidity. Sly, it was to say, was a victim of abuse, just like Katherina was a victim of Petruchio’s abuse. In the end, I felt for Sly in the same way I felt for Katherina, because the ending blatantly restated what she said in her submission speech: by force, you can do what you will to those who have less power, or money, or clout.
Although the production was a film school diploma project, with an ensemble of same-age actors, which rendered some parts, like Baptista’s or Vincentio’s, not entirely convincing, it was excellent. Cheeky and sharp with its formal self-referential games and clever framing, and coherent and disturbing with its brutal reading of the play’s misogyny, it was one of the best productions of The Taming of the Shrew I have ever seen.
Photos: Mikołaj Zacharow, courtesy of Lodz Film School