The Taming of the Shrew, translated and directed by Jack Nieborg, Shakespeare Theater Diever, The Netherlands, 26 August 2017.
Reviewed by Paul Franssen, Utrecht University
The annual open-air Shakespeare production at Diever, staged by amateurs, seems to be drawing bigger crowds every year. This year’s production of The Taming of the Shrew makes it clear why: Shakespeare is made accessible to a fairly wide audience, and made to speak to current concerns. These aims are sometimes difficult to reconcile with strict fidelity to Shakespeare’s text, which is therefore translated rather loosely, with many interpolations. Nevertheless, this year’s Shrew did address themes that, arguably, are at the centre of Shakespeare’s play, namely gender roles and sexism. It did so by exploiting the play’s farcical potential to the full.
Unlike most amateur theatre, Diever is often very adventurous where style is concerned. This Shrew was in modern dress, and also the set looked very abstract, almost modernist. The narrow, stretched-out stage that divided the auditorium into two equal halves was dominated by three outlines of houses, consisting of orange metal frames. By an ingenious system, these house frames could be moved up and down the stage, and slid inside each other like Chinese boxes. Apart from an interior setting, the beams could be made to represent a forest through lighting effects. Otherwise, the stage was bare save for fences around the four trapdoors in the floor, which allowed characters to quickly exit and enter from below stage, allowing for plenty of farcical hustle and bustle.
The housing frames sliding into each other were also a visual equivalent of the structure of the play-within-the-play, which was retained in this production and even expanded: at the end, as in the anonymous play known as A Shrew, Christopher Sly was taken out of the experience of the play-within-the-play again, in which he himself was revealed to be acting the role of Hortensio’s widow, when his wife came on-stage to collect him. Meekly, Sly followed her back to the camping where they were spending their holidays. Unlike Shakespeare’s play, this adaptation never allowed us to forget Sly for long: he regularly interfered with the show, protesting every time a character was about to sing, which he hated, or asking the players for some money to go and buy himself a beer.
As this suggests, we were never allowed to forget that this was just a play, not actual reality. As in a Brecht production, actors changed their costumes in full view of the audience, and those characters of the play-within-the-play who dressed up as someone else (which can be quite confusing for audiences) were marked out by wearing long liars’ noses like Pinocchio. Most strikingly, the Lord of the induction announced that the two chief actors had each learned both parts, and did not yet know which role they were to play tonight. This was to be determined by a kind of Wheel of Fortune, with a figure of a bride and groom mounted on it on opposite sides; a member of the audience was asked to give the wheel a twist, and this decided whether Katherina was to be played by a woman, Petruccio by a man, or the reverse. This was not a hoax, for although on this particular evening there was no switch of gender, on other nights there was; and the actors really did not know which part would be theirs on any specific night.
This clever gimmick of course hinted at the arbitrariness and cultural conditioning underlying gender roles. This theme was further worked out in the costuming: Bianca predictably wore a pink girlish dress, and Petruccio a suit of baby blue. Most of the other, older men were in suits of darker blue, though Lucentio was tellingly dressed in pink, perhaps suggesting that he was not a real man. Kate, by contrast, wore a business woman’s leather two-piece suit of flaming orange, with pronounced masculine shoulders. Behaviour, too, was shown to be a matter of conditioning, not nature, as when Bianca burst into tears after being mistreated by her sister, but forgot to cry when her father turned away from her. Once married to Lucentio, she also turned on the waterworks when he did not do as she pleased. Kate, of course, was far more straightforward and honest in her battle of the sexes. She was baffled by the undisguised sexism of Petruccio, which was made even cruder by the translation. Petruccio was, perhaps, the most puzzling character: at times, he did gain the audience’s sympathy, but lost it again with his relentless bullying, of Kate as well as his servants.
Gender difference and class difference went hand in hand. In a clever variation, Petruccio’s domestic staff in 4.1 had been expanded from Grumio, Curtis, and “four or five servingmen” to a dozen servants all dressed and behaving alike, as if they were one organism. Terrified of their master, they moved in a jittery way, and sought protection by herding together. But when he demanded, “Who has prepared this food?” they extradited the culprit from their midst, glad of their own escape. He then ordered one of his servants to urinate on the food, to make it really inedible. The way a dozen characters could be bullied by a single loudmouth came across as very funny. When asked to help him off with his shoes, they formed a cue, all holding on to each other, reminiscent of the policemen in the old slapstick series of Comedy Capers.
The production’s farcical nature made the theme of the abuse of women less urgent; yet, when Kate pronounced her set speech on the duties of a wife near the end, she struck a serious note. There was not a single sign of her being ironic in advocating meekness for women, yet several audience members were heard to laugh in disbelief at the extreme demands she made of women, even telling them (in Nieborg’s translation) to always be sexually available to their husbands. Yet her speech was undercut when Sly’s wife entered and demanded: “How much longer is this nonsense going to last?”, to be answered, apologetically: “Oh, we are just putting on a little play”—which of course also ironised Kate’s argument: that, too, was revealed to be part of a masculine fantasy. All it took was a strong woman like Mrs. Sly to release her weak husband from these illusions, and take him back to the reality of life on the camping.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.
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