Taming of the Shrew, EDP, dir. Hyon-u Lee, Korean Cultural Centre, London. 8 August 2016
By Sarah Olive
If you read this before 20th August this year and your curiosity is piqued, you can catch this one-hour Shrew at the Edinburgh Fringe. I’ve known about the production for nine months, since I visited Seoul to explore Shakespeare in Korean higher education and met its director, Hyon-u Lee. But I had not been able to see it until now – so the evening represented the zenith of my enforcedly delayed gratification. Freud seemed to have got it right about deferral leading to a larger reward, because, in addition to the show itself, I was able to attend a panel on Korean Shakespeare in Theory and Practice held immediately beforehand. The panel meant that my mind was usefully awash with information about Korean Shakespeare productions and theatre traditions, such as the use of the madang – or playing space, encompassing both stage and auditorium – in the traditional Korean entertainment talchum and sinmyong, a kind of mirth or energy which spills over from the actors into the audience, saturating the space. This was thanks to the papers of Lee (also a renowned lecturer, writer and dramaturg, his company is constituted from a student drama club at his university, Soon Chun Hyang), as well as the academic Yong Li Lan and graduate students Eleine Ng and Boram Choi, on different twenty-first century Korean Shakespeare productions.
A free, public event hosted by the Korean Cultural Centre and the Shakespeare Association of Korea, it had been billed to Shakespeareans recovering from the previous week’s World Shakespeare Congress as hair of the dog. The audience seemed however, to be mostly made up of those with professional and personal interests in Korean culture rather than Shakespeare studies. The two rows of chairs in the foyer-cum-playing space had filled up quickly, so with some trepidation I decided to help along the blurring of actor/spectator binaries I had just heard about and sit on the floor in front of the first row, trying desperately to keep my feet and bag to myself. A drum beat declared the start of the show and, as actors followed musicians on to the stage, I counted about fourteen people in and immediately around the playing space. Apart from the lead actors, some had primary roles as musicians and dancers, a couple more were filming the performance: almost all were on stage for the duration. Lucentio and Tranio, in costumes typical in Korea until the late nineteenth century, chatted to the audience and exclaimed over the beauty of ‘Padua’ – this was and English-language production. Then, a fan dance (which made captivating swan and lotus-like shapes) from the centre of which Bianca emerged very much the good, obedient, tradition-honouring daughter, delighting her father and several suitors. You didn’t need to be an expert in Korean material or social history to decode that shiny, embroidered hanboks, jeogori and baji (smocks, jackets and trousers) denoted the nobles in this Padua; the dull, plainer ones, their servants. There was further Koreanised movement when a servant countered a potential threat to her master with a martial arts high kick. Kate crashed into this nostalgic calm to thumping, stateside hip hop: dropping, popping and locking in hot pants and spangled top, she whipped her burgundy hair back and forth. Her US-accented English added to her identity as the resolute, practised and flaunting antithesis of her younger sibling. Brilliantly, Kate’s subsequent tying up of Bianca occurred as she forced her sister to dress like her and copy her dance moves, resulting in a silver crop top entangling the latter’s arms as Kate mortified her with a bit of bump’n’grind. Kate’s passion for and skill in hip hop manoeuvres meant that in the following outburst aimed at her father over his perceived favouritism – ‘She is your treasure, she must have a husband;/ I must dance bare-foot on her wedding day/ And for your love to her lead apes in hell’ (2.1.32-34) – her concern appeared to be channeled less towards being expected to perform for the guests, than the prospect of doing so without her funky gold hi-tops.
Having set up a conflict between Kate and the other characters based on their subscription to, or refusal of, traditional and new Korean, Eastern and Western cultural influences, the production mercifully did not labour the point by rigidly assigning characters every action or prop along this binary. There was much in the movement and stage business that eschewed realism for stylisation, a feature long associated with Eastern theatre generally and which, Yong Li Lan had suggested in her paper, is characteristic of Korean Shakespeare. Many of the items used, and the activities connoted, on stage resisted easy, binary classification. For example, the contest between Bianca’s suitors was represented by three farcical contests. I would describe them as sporting tests of speed and strength since the first was a horse race on brightly-coloured, plastic Moomin-like toy creatures, the second a swimming race (simulated, as in traditional theatre forms, with shaken blue fabric). However, I doubt the third will be popping up in the Olympic Games anytime soon: a test of the suitors’ fidelity of attraction, Hortensio and Gremio struggled to subdue erections of cartoon proportions when tempted by a lap dancer, while the victorious Lucentio remained unstirred.
In a panel of international directors at the World Shakespeare Congress, Caroline Byrne had explained that Shrew directors feel that it is their staging of the play’s finale that earns their fee and on which the reception of their production rests. As a critic, I started puzzling at how Lee would stage what in the text looks like Kate’s ultimate submission to Petruchio from the moment her wedding party awaited the groom. I kept searching for signs of submission (plain or kinky), defiance, and desire from Kate for the rest of the production. When Petruchio entered for the ceremony clad in gold sequinned hot pants, with a boastfully apparent manhood, I told myself that Kate was less horrified at his calculated inappropriateness and more that he’d stolen her sartorial thunder and shock factor; that she saw it as acknowledging rather than parodying her. Petruchio held Kate in a long, showy kiss and the result of the couple’s argument about staying for the reception resulted in him throwing her over his shoulder, causing onlookers to scatter out of harm’s way, before placing her on a horse and whipping her ass as she bounced off stage. Petruchio’s cruelty to his servants, alongside that to Kate, was comically emphasised: overworking them, punishing them by withholding food, outdoing them unfairly in games with bigger and better kit. None of this complicated, let alone redeemed, his character. Kate emerged for Bianca’s wedding banquet, with her hands demurely folded beneath the front flap of her dangui (an upper garment worn by noblewomen); she followed Petruchio’s bidding in throwing her headpiece to the floor; and smoothly delivered her lesson on obedience at first glancing to the widow and her sister, then holding the audiences’ eyes, without a trace of irony or faltering. I was, by now, worried that the company might be playing it too straight. However, there was no kiss on ‘kiss me, Kate’ and, in an instant it seemed, she was shrugging off her flowing robes to reveal her club wear underneath, leading the other women in some feisty urban moves as the men recoiled and pleaded with her, ‘what are you doing?’ It took Petruchio a while to work his way through the posse to get to her in the middle, where he lifted her up, not – this time – to remonstrate with or punish her. Rather, he did so in apparent acceptance of her dedication to hip hop dance, music and style and perhaps out of respect for her skill in fooling everyone into believing that she was a changed and conforming woman. This Kate, I told myself, had concealed her true tastes and behaviour temporarily to get her father, sister and suitor off her back regarding the expectation that she would marry, but she had no intention of giving them up. Kate’s springing this surprise, the absence of trepidation or rancour on any character’s part, and the general sense of sinmyong – joy and energy – went down well with the audience in the Centre. Yet, as I massaged the pins and needles out of my legs, I couldn’t resist wishing the production had given me more of a hint as to the future of the characters: to what extent would Kate be able to balance her role as Petruchio’s wife with the lifestyle she’d just publicly announced herself to be enduringly committed to? How long would it be before there were further demands placed on her? I found it hard to believe that marriage would be the last expectation Kate’s family and society placed on her.
I’m left pondering whether this concern for the characters is a product of the dominance of Western psychological realism my theatre-going and criticism or Shakespeare’s play (something Byrne suggested, but also Chinese students I’ve heard expressing desire for more of a glimpse into Beatrice and Benedick’s married life after watching Much Ado About Nothing’s). The whole experience made me hungry for an event focussed – not, this time, on what Korean theatre-makers do in terms of staging Shakespeare using various national or regional conventions or something combining or transcending them. Rather, the sequel would consider how home and international audiences respond to English-language Korean productions (several papers had made mention of non-Korean audiences’ use of the physical and visual elements in Korean-language Shakespeare productions to overcome not understanding the language). Do Shakespeare audiences have regionally specific, reflex-like ways of responding to and critiquing the same productions? How and when do we develop them? What are the implications for staging and watching Shakespeare plays, especially those on tour from (or going on tour to) other regions? Indeed, in a fantasy world where my legs were less prone to falling asleep and I was a more intrepid reviewer, I would have raced outside to ask the passers-by, tourists, drinkers spilling over from the pub, and the tramp who pressed up against (and sometimes banged on) the Centre’s copious windows what they thought they had been watching (Shakespeare? Eastern art? Something else entirely?) and their impressions of it.