The Taming of the Shrew @ Sport for Jove, Seymour Centre, Sydney, 19 and 28 May 2016
Reviewed by Penny Gay, University of Sydney
Sport for Jove’s founding director, Damien Ryan, first mounted this production in 2012, and it returned recently for a brief but welcome re-run. Rather than seeing it in an outer Sydney suburb, I was able to enjoy its busy and complex staging on Sydney’s only decent-sized thrust stage, the York Theatre of the Seymour Centre at Sydney University.
Ryan sets the play on a film stage in a 1920s Italian studio – pre-sound. The probing questioning of a woman’s right to speak begins here (there are delightful visual references to Singin’ in the Rain’s use of the same conceit, though the production’s music remains appropriate to its 1920s period). The Induction is replaced with a version of 1.1 in which travellers, a brother and sister, arrive in Padua, revealing themselves to be Lucentio and ‘Tania’ substituting for the servant Tranio (the siblings are played by Christopher Stalley and Eloise Winestock, who manage to look convincingly alike, despite their difference in height). Tania, of course, gets into male drag and pretends to be Lucentio, while the real Lucentio gets into female drag for his role as the tutor Cambio, now called Gretchen (a running joke is that everyone else in the cast speaks fluent German and Italian; he/she doesn’t). The matinee idol Hortensio, hilariously played by Terry Karabelas, puts in another creditable drag turn as Spanish dance tutor ‘Lucia’. Thus the production quickly and amusingly deconstructs the conventions of gender, showing that it is all performative.
Bianca, played by Lizzie Schebesta as entitled and imperious, is the studio’s blonde star: the film she is making is called ‘CALAMITY of so long life’, and the costuming for it (we see a scene being shot) is that of Calamity Jane, another gender-bending version of the present’s cultural past. She even speaks, in character as ‘Calamity’, Kate’s line from the wedding scene, ‘I see a woman may be made a fool/ If she had not a spirit to resist’ – only to be shut up and reminded to mime it. When Katharina (Danielle King) arrives, she is an aviatrix in breeches and boots, and a very angry woman, clearly impatient with the constrictions of her world, and longing to fly away. Petruchio (James Lugton) seems to understand quickly that Kate has repressed her emotional needs (not necessarily for love, just for acceptance and perhaps a working partnership) under a general façade of resentment, and he tailors his ‘taming’ business to enable her own recognition of this, while at all times clearly enjoying her wit and intelligence. So when he delivers his ‘Thus have I politicly begun my reign’ speech (first to his servants, then to the audience), it resonates with more than an entitled attitude: Lugton speaks it quietly and thoughtfully, even sadly – as though this is just the way things are in his corrupt, machismo culture.
The wedding scene is more about Petruchio’s savagely satirical attack on convention than any contempt of his bride – a perspective that presumably he knows Kate will share; she appears wearing a black dress. Arriving in his long-johns only, and a deflated parachute which parodies a woman’s wedding train, after the ceremony he emerges wearing the priest’s robes and flourishing his prayer book, from which he ‘quotes’ the ‘my goods, my chattels’ speech with evident disdain for orthodox views of marriage.
The tormenting of Kate in Petruchio’s house (a ship; he is the last of ‘Antonio’s privateers’, as a set-changing ballad tells us) is relatively benign, assisted by substantial script cuts, sneaked supplies to Kate of blankets and food, and a rollicking performance by the ship’s crew of various shanties, including ‘Where is the life that late I led?’ Since the ‘ship’ is patently a stage structure of which the audience sees mostly the supporting struts, not the total illusion, we are forcibly reminded that this scene is a theatrical trope, not any type of realism – and that everyone is really just a part of the narrative team. The servants in both Baptista’s and Petruchio’s households are also film crew; we soon realise that everything we see in colour on the stage is the basis of a black-and-white film – extended with location shots, of which we regularly see excerpts: so the whole show, at one level, is framed as a period-inflected romantic fantasy. The overall effect is that one gives up even thinking about what is the ‘actual’ reality here (whether emotional or physical), and just goes along with the ride of Shakespeare’s words and story given a recognisably wry and knowing 20th-century context by a set of likeable actors. The talkies are clearly only just around the corner, but no Shakespeare film (including the Pickford/Fairbanks Shrew or the Zeffirelli one) is as daringly deconstructive as Sport for Jove’s 21st-century version of 1920s narrative conventions.
There is a lot of very funny mayhem in the first three acts; the Commedia-influenced farce translates seamlessly into Keaton-style antics. The high-school audience at my first viewing loved it and laughed a lot; the older members of the audience were clearly a bit confused at the deliberately multi-perspective story, and a number didn’t come back after interval. They missed one of the most surprising and satisfying scenes I’ve ever seen in a production of Shrew – and I don’t mean the last scene, which is very powerful in most productions. It was the ‘sun and moon’ scene (4.5) that delighted me and seemed to encapsulate much of what this production was aiming to show about power structures and gender relations. The first nine lines of the scene were repeated – re-enacted – some five times, like a number of ‘takes’ in a film, with the star Petruchio insisting on another go because his co-star wouldn’t co-operate. Kate and the baggage-carriers got more and more impatient at the deliberate absurdity of Petruchio’s egotism, and eventually the carriers (as contract small-part players) simply put down the bags and left. Alone with him on stage, Kate relaxed and saw the funny side of Petruchio’s posing and the show resumed, with Kate willingly entering into the game of pretending to think Vincentio (here Vincentia, played by Angela Bauer as a superannuated film-star) a beautiful young man.
Danielle King’s Kate, blessed with a glorious dark voice and a supple stage presence, was able to inflect most of her lines from this point onwards with a knowing irony. She returned to her breeches and boots ensemble for most of the last two acts, rather than the black dress of her wedding: this is the expression of her true modern self. Although the director’s programme note insists that she delivers Kate’s last great speech without ‘nudges and winks’ (and she does), she begins it by laughing, slightly uncomfortably, at Petruchio’s demand. But as she speaks the lines with their persuasive rhetoric, it is her inflections and intelligence that inform her eloquence, and signal her understanding of a partnership of emotional and intellectual parity as the way to make a marriage work, whatever the conventions say. Everyone else at the table (on which she stands for much of the speech) seems petty and stupid by comparison, even when they are being ‘up-to-date’ with their shouted protests at the old-fashioned sentiments of the speech.
It’s a difficult line to walk in any production of the play. Katharina, we are allowed to conclude, understands her place in history – and also how to make a satisfactory place for herself in it. At the same time, if we turn our attention to Bianca, we see a now angry and depressed drunk, whose earlier role as an autonomous film star has been fatally compromised by her ‘romantic’ marriage and – it seems – her rejection by her father, the studio director. So she is no better off than her sister, in this environment which is automatically skewed against women, however clever and talented they may be.
There is, however, a delicious visual postscript to the Shakespearean text: as Kate and Petruchio go off, we see them on the black-and-white ‘film’ screen walking briskly across a field towards her biplane, which Kate pilots expertly as they head off. Petruchio, a sailor who wears a version of a naval captain’s uniform throughout (though we know by now that he is a more dubious ‘privateer’) is shown completely terrified of this brave new world of 20th-century mobility. The production is full of such telling details derived from the familiar cultural frame of 1920s Hollywood. There isn’t a cliché to be seen or heard in this slick and lively ensemble performance: every actor, in however small a role, inflects it with meaning. Kate and Petruchio clearly find each other intriguing, unconventional; but there is no cheap recourse to the standard solution of their immediate falling in love, or even lust; there’s a lot of work to be done for this partnership to flourish.
Ryan has pulled off a reading of this problematic play which is tough and unsentimental, while also often very funny. It makes no excuses for the misbehaviour of practically everyone on stage, and in providing the frame of 1920s Hollywood it reminds us that entrenched social attitudes create a strong power base for the status quo, whether it be in the sixteenth century or the 1930s – and only the intelligent and unconventional even have the potential to escape into a more adult partnership.