The Taming of the Shrew, unknown director, for Jaracza Theatre, Łódź, Poland, 24 October 2013.
Review by Agnieszka Rasmus
In his review of Michael Bogdanov’s RSC production in 1978, Michael Billington famously wondered “whether there is any reason to revive a play which seems totally offensive to our age and society” (qtd. in Thompson 2003:17). This is a question that should be asked especially if the play is revived with a teenage audience in mind. The misgivings voiced by the critic seem to have been overlooked by the Jaracza Theatre production which does what Ann Thompson warns against, i.e. play it straight.
The play featured in the repertoire from March 2007 to October 2013, but the name of the director is not listed anywhere because, as rumour has it, the artistic director took over to save the show. The play is modernised by means of a few contemporary references, jokes, and props, such as take-away packaging, graffiti, and a luxury motorbike – all to the sound of house and techno music that the producers believe represent youth and speak to their sensibilities.
However, the main problem with the production is that it only goes as far as updating Shakespeare’s play visually. It does not try to address the play’s overt misogyny or think of appropriate ways of updating its gender wars theme so that it would fit rather than undermine its visually contemporary context. Instead, it relies on outdated and anachronistic stereotypes which fail to represent today’s young viewer, let alone help the play resonate with them.
To appeal to their target audience, Katharina wears a black baggy jumper, jeans, a black leather jacket and Dr Martens, all to visually signify her rebellion. The juxtaposition between the two sisters works against Kate. While Bianca, tall, slim, and classy in impeccable outfits, is oozing confidence and sex-appeal, Kate looks scruffy and plump and is clearly uncomfortable with her own body. Moreover, Katharina’s behaviour is incongruent with her contemporary female rebel appearance. She looks the part but agrees to marry under her father’s orders. When Baptista is striking a deal with Petruchio, she seems pleased. In the wooing scene, she displays a weird mix of emotions, pulling faces, puffing, giggling and screaming. Another illustration of her confusing behaviour happens after the wedding. When Petruchio declares that they are not staying for dinner, she screams and starts making a scene, but then upon realising that they will be riding a motorcycle she becomes elated. Impersonating Katharina as a childish young woman whose mannerisms and voice irritate rather than inspire sympathy, Katarzyna Cynke creates the impression that she struggles with and feels uncomfortable in the role. It is equally uncomfortable to be watching her, especially that the reasons for her behaviour are so unclear.
This failure in portraying Katharina is why the audience’s sympathies lie with Petruchio, even though in this production he is portrayed as a drunken bully. His body language is hard to read due to the fact that he appears drunk during most of his stage time. It seems though that he personifies a young man whose strategy of seduction consists of abuse to emphasise his alpha male’s virility combined with an abundance of over-the-top complements to show his romantic nature underneath; unfortunately, the fact that the actor playing Petruchio is well over forty turns him into an embarrassing version of a man in a mid-life crisis, a strategy that seems at odds with the profile of the theatre-going target audience.
Because the production omits the Induction, it is hard to justify the farcical and over-the-top acting of both Cynke and Czop (Katharina and Petruchio), and the rest of the cast. The scenes of verbal and physical abuse become especially problematic. On the one hand, the audience hears a text whose cruel and primitive language is hard to accept for a modern viewer without a distancing filter. On the other, the acting is light and farcical, creating a huge dissonance between the aural and visual fields.
In the final scene, the men are bragging about their wives. When Petruchio wants Katharina to come to him as part of the wager, all he needs to do is whisper her name and she, as if drawn by magic, appears, all smiling and flirty. He concludes his triumph over the other husbands by demanding a kiss from her. She first objects, but not to the kiss itself but to a public display of physical closeness. When she finally produces a passionate kiss that satisfies him, they start swinging into a happy dance and fooling around, which sums up the romantic comedy tone: the boy gets the girl and the girl is ecstatic. Only The Taming of the Shrew is not a romantic comedy.
There is no other way but to read literally Jaracza’s take on the play as taming of Katharina’s silly rebellion by a strong male hand. Throughout the production Petruchio relies on his high-testosterone “charm,” which proves to be a successful strategy with men, women and servants. Katharina, in turn, undergoes a change. From a caricature of a woman paranoid with low self-esteem and ridden with emotional swings, she turns into a happy and submissive wife. The implication is that she has never really been a rebel, definitely not against patriarchal order and the commodification of women, but an underappreciated child who grew up to become a troubled young woman waiting to be noticed and eager to surrender, literally, to love.
A high-school student commenting on the production wondered if its message could really be that an obstinate woman may be turned into a mild lamb through male domination. One could possibly argue otherwise by claiming that both Katharina and Petruchio are victims of social expectations. One could do that, if one tried very hard, but the production does not give the slightest hint that this might be the case. What you get is what you see, and what you see is a miserable woman made happy by a drunk through a bit of starving, pushing around, sex, and a few sweet words.
An afterthought: To be fair to the show, the audience did laugh at the over-the-top acting and the stereotypical presentation of gender. Was my criticism unfounded? After all, it was all done in good humour. Or was it? Then I came across a website of one of the high schools whose pupils saw the play and posted their reviews online. Their reactions confirmed what I felt all along about the production: that they did but jest, poison in jest.