The Taming of the Shrew [Poskromienie złośnicy], dir. Katarzyna Deszcz, Stefan Żeromski Theatre in Kielce, Poland. Premiere: 12 April 2014
Reviewed by Jacek Fabiszak
There is not denying the fact that Shrew in the Western world poses a serious challenge. For a variety of reasons: because it is mysoginistic, because it cannot match the complexity of Shakespeare’s mature romantic comedies, because it is difficult to be adapted into a topical production which would address the thorny issues of the surrounding world if it is not radically changed into a feminist manifesto. All right, I realise that it is a cliché but such pitfalls abound in Shakespeare’s play and are very difficult to avoid.
The review should begin with the director’s (Katarzyna Deszcz) justification of the choice of the play one can find in the production’s programme (in Anna Zielińska’s interview with the director, “Katharina tames Katharina” [Katarzyna poskramia Katarzynę]): “Shakespeare’s text shows a very interesting mechanism: two strong personalities clash with each other; they [Petruchio and Katharina] are two independent people who reject the world’s routine. And this appeals to me as most topical. She does not tolerate the treatment of women as sexual objects. He is a playboy, a lazybones who throws money away, convinced that no woman can resist him. Neither Katharina nor Petruchio have never met an equally strong personality of the opposite gender. Ergo, they have never loved anybody” (my translation from Polish). In other words, what the director found topical in the play was the two major figures’ social independence, albeit in two different, indeed contradictory ways; what they also share is not only strong personality, but rising to challenges, too.
As a result, the main characters in the production – Petruchio (Krzysztof Grabowski) and Katharina (Wiktoria Kulaszewska) – are presented as social misfits and rebels, for their own reasons rejecting the patriarchal social norms, whereby women are men’s property and men are supposed to be serious and responsible. The latter is manifested in the men’s mercantile attitude towards the world in which only businesses are conducted and deals are struck. Petruchio certainly maintains an ironic distance to this attitude. It is visible in both his treatment of the other figures and the (in)famous scene of the wedding at which he arrives inappropriately dressed. In the production, the spectators wonder for a long while what is wrong with his clothing (his servants implore him to change) since he is wearing a black frock coat, apparently only proper for a wedding. The puzzle is solved as soon as he turns his back on the auditorium: a part of his trousers is missing, part that should cover his buttocks. The effect is crudely comic (yet it works!), and equally crudely demonstrating his attitude to the rest of the world.
Petruchio tries to teach Kate the same. They do become partners in the end, which is signalled by, among others, the costumes they (don’t) wear: from the scene in Petruchio’s house when the dress for Katharina is shredded by her husband till the end of the production they are both clothed in underwear only. In this way, Petruchio is ready to share his wife’s discomfort, but on his own terms. It becomes part of the taming process: the scene in Petruchio’s house ends the first part of the production; during the interval the actors playing the main parts do not leave the stage, but stay on it, occupying opposing ends and staring at each other, continuing the silent tug-of-war of the sexes. The silence is very important in the production; with the stress on the comedy mainly on the verbal plane contained in the modern translation by Stanisław Barańczak (so much praised by critics) and, judging by the reaction of the audience, very effective; silence becomes the verbal and non-verbal (laughter) comedy’s opposite, indeed a sign of not only rejecting the verbal bargaining so characteristic of the world of business and ‘tickling commodity’ in which transactions are carried out by means of bidding, but an indication of Katharina’s tragedy. What is interesting about the treatment of silence and verbosity/loudness in the production is that Katharina maintains silence and when she talks she, as the director observes, never shouts, which is the way she expresses her anger, what with her hard facial expression becomes very convincing. That same silence, hard face, and calm words become, too, a token of Katharina’s suffering, especially in view of the fact that these elements of Kulaszewska’s performance do not change in the course of the production.
On the other extreme there is Petruchio with his Baroque and lavish language, also defying the middle ground, as it were, with his extravagancy. However, there is no suffering in it, but the opposite: hedonistic pleasure (yes, I know it’s a pleonasm) and cynicism, shrouding the world of business in a cloud of excessive verbosity, lacking the concrete but emphasising the grotesque.
And it is Petruchio’s flamboyance that inevitably will need to prevail. Significantly enough it is a man (Petruchio) who, being wiser and merrier, allegedly intellectually and definitely physically superior teaches and instructs a woman (Katharina). The process of teaching involves not only taking off outerwear and linguistic bullying, but also very physical coercion, kind of domestic violence when in their first encounter Petruchio and Katharina come to blows! As a result, Kate is being both psychologically and physically broken.
Strolling in the foyer of the theatre in the interval one could not help noticing a lifesize picture of a couple dressed in Renaissance fashion in which a man (husband?) was protectively leaning over a woman (wife?). What struck the spectator was that instead of their faces there were oval holes in the picture inviting the spectators to fill them with their faces and possibly take a photo. This very picture was employed by the director as an important property for Katharina’s last speech: this time, it is both her and Petruchio who put their heads into the openings. Not only are the characters metatheatrically “dressed” in this way; this trick primarily serves as a distancing device whereby her submissive monologue be not treated seriously (perhaps it was serious in the Renaissance, as the clothing in the picture suggests, but not anymore). The director reinforces the message by reversing the traditional, patriarchal social roles in this scene: it is Katharina’s face that tops the man’s silhouette in the picture, while Petruchio’s – that of the woman. Yet even this reversal of roles is not enough to significantly change the original meaning of Katharina’s speech since the spectator cannot erase from their memory the image of Petruchio beating Katharina. Deszcz’s comment on the taming and its effects sounds ironic and unconvincing in this context: “She [Kate] matures to accept the world’s mediocrity, when she meets a man who looks at her with equally open eyes” – the spectator does not leave the theatre with an impression that Katharina does ‘perform’ only the part of an obedient wife. To the contrary, when at the end of the production they hear a well-known disco polo song “Ona tańczy dla mnie” [She dances for me], they may have a rather bitter impression that the taming is complete.
Bianca (Zuzanna Wierzbińska) naturally constitutes the opposite of Katharina, not only easily accommodates to “the world’s mediocrity”, as the director had it, but even fully embracing it by living up to the image of a sexually attractive girl whose main desire is to seduce men and/or grant them sexual satisfaction. Her extremely short dress and sensual body language are a grotesque of the ideal of a woman in a man’s world. Bianca takes advantage of the social system and skilfully manipulates men. The director sees her as “coldly calculating her future, accepting the fact that the world treats as a sexual and bargain commodity.” Wierzbińska is very convincing in expressing this attitude.
The production was awarded the Golden Yorick prize (for the best theatrical production of a Shakespeare play in Poland in the season) at the 18th Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival. The jury justified their decision in the following words: “Of all the plays in the competition, this one shows the most consistent style, consciously transferring interpretative accents and reversing plot schemes”. Definitely, one can agree with the consistency of style: rather modern costuming, economical arrangement of the stage design, and careful use of multimedia in the scenes of ‘taming’: a silent fragment of Zeffirelli’s film version of Shrew with Burton and Taylor is screened, perhaps as yet another estranging and distancing device, to parenthesize the onstage taming.
 Music characterised by simple lyrics and melody; barnyard music.