first night

The Taming of the Shrew

Kenneth Chan and Sophie Williams offer male and female perspectives on Shakespeare's great comedy of gender roles.

Ladies First ...

The Taming of the Shrew is a bold choice of Shakespeare to stage to a modern audience, surrounded by misogynistic controversy. As a newcomer to the notorious play, I was intrigued to see what director Stephanie Lam would make  of the ending, particularly as a woman. Could she capture the spirited Katherine subdued in such a way that would not spark a feminist outcry?

The setting was simple with a modest use of props. Prompt lights-off, lights-on, (accompanied by the slightly obtrusive ‘popping’ sound of a Macbook volume control) signaled the scene transitions and the opening of the play. An archetypal ‘rah’ makes an entrance, Jack Wills gilet and all… or rather, the modernly attired Lucentio, played brilliantly by the charismatic Chaz Pitman. He and his sidekick Tranio (Hannah Colling) swiftly set the comedic tone for the drama that followed. Although Hannah’s lines were a little rushed to begin with she settles comfortably into her role and comes into her own by the end of the play, garnering much of the audience’s laughs.

The standard of acting is consistently high throughout, with great attention to detail in the facial expressions and hand gestures of even the minor characters. Frederico Mollet’s Petruchio in particular steals the show, a character you love and despise in equal measure. Every bit as headstrong as the ‘shrew’, he is sickeningly suave yet disarmingly charming. His manipulative cunning proves an exemplary foil to the wild and boisterous Katherine (Anna Hogarth), who stomps about the stage like a teenager with a bad case of pre-menstrual syndrome. Hogarth certainly cannot be accused of failing to capture the indomitable spirit of the shrew, and delivers her lines with gusto. The scenes of sibling friction are perhaps a little over the top, but on the whole her character is believable, and she tones down the shouting as to mirror Katherine’s increasing subservience.

Georgia Small’s Bianca is praiseworthy for being suitably flirtatious, yet not overplaying the role. The scene between her and the disguised Lucentio was particularly impressive, as she juggled a hushed exchange with her suitor and loudly reciting Latin to the off-stage Hortensio (Tom Maxwell), artfully controlling her voice and expression to suit the situation.  Not an easy task when trying to convey surprise, wariness and perhaps a hint of affection, yet she pulls it off admirably. Baptista (Georgina Layton) also gave a solid performance as the long-suffering mother of the shrew, delivering her lines with confidence and clarity. By contrast, Hortensio and Gremio were a little softly spoken – unaided by the difficult acoustics of Hatfield dining hall - but this may just be owing to contrast with the violent energy of the lead females.

Many of the male parts were substituted for female counterparts – perhaps a deliberate decision in casting, as it greatly diminished the sense of male dominance that might otherwise overshadow the play. With the exception of Petruchio, the men were demure and the women assertive and confident. Highlights included the sexually-charged exchange as Petruchio initially attempts to woo Katherine and Hogarth’s performance of the reformed Katherine in the play’s denouement. In spite of her new-found obedience to Petruchio, Hogarth portrays a ‘Kate’ who retains her spirit but with dignity; likewise, Mollet’s Petruchio is as smug as ever, but seems sincere is his affections for his once wayward wife. The lovers seem to have found a happy medium in their turbulent relationship, which is surprisingly touching to witness.

I came to this production half-expecting to be offended (and distracted) by the sexist overtones. I came away pleasantly surprised – not only by the superb skill of the actors (hats off to Pitman, Colling and Mollet in particular) but also by the content of the play itself. The romance may be unconventional, but it certainly feels authentic – rather apt with Valentine’s Day on the horizon! The sparse set puts pressure on the actors, with nothing to detract the audience’s attention, but this simply highlights how good the performance is. All in all, a Saturday evening well spent, and no elements for this reviewer to be ‘shrewish’ about!

Sophie Williams

 


Another view ...

I sat down in the improvised seating In the Hatfield dining hall with some trepidation. My fears were not unfounded: the view of the stage was poor, the players’ voices echoed in the poor acoustics of the hall, and the bright EXIT light was disconcerting in the corner of my vision. However, the cast proved their talent by overcoming these drawbacks in The Lion Theatre Company’s (LTC) not-to-be-missed modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

The play depicts the courtship of Petruchio (Frederico Mollet), the gentleman who has come to Padua to “wive and thrive”, and the headstrong, shrewish Katherina (Anna Hogarth), spotlighting Petruchio’s methods in taming Katherina into obedience. The major alteration that director Stephanie Lam makes is the replacement of multiple male characters with female parallels. Perhaps strangely, to one familiar with the play, the patriarchal society where the only female characters are Katherina and her sister Bianca (Georgia Small) is transformed into an overwhelmingly matriarchal society.

All the players’ performances were in general to be commended. In particular, Frederico Mollet played a highly in-control, sinister, playboy interpretation of Petruchio, and was the absolute highlight of the play. The occasional well-placed eruptions of physical expressivity and explosions of some seemingly innocuous words expose Petruchio’s true, passionate personality and visions of greatness beneath the outer cool mastermind. Mollet’s performance pronounced Petruchio’s superior manliness with absolute finality. This was accompanied by the sensuality brought to the stage by Anna Hogarth. Hogarth too was able to produce the layered personality of her character, playing the perfect Katherina to Mollet’s Petruchio.

However, the casting of female players for male characters sometimes did make for odd viewing. The hand motions of Trania (Hannah Colling), the female Tranio, are clearly feminine, and Colling’s gossipy, matchmaking interpretation of Trania almost paints her as the real ‘shrew’ of the play. The ineffectiveness or near-negation of her disguise as Lucentio, however, adds to the comedy. Similarly, the Grumio’s (Steph Zellers) American accent and sometimes disconcerting delivery added to the comedic relief the character provides at times of tension and antagonism.

 

Not so beneficial was Tom Maxwell’s frozen facial expression (as Hortentio), of over-abundant effort. Gremio (Ryan Baker) also came across tonight almost plastic, as though the distractions of recalling the lines and facing a live audience were getting to him, though this impression decreased as the play progressed.

Now take note: When Lucentio (Chaz Pitman) proposes a wager of twenty crowns, to go to the man whose wife answers their call fastest, Petruchio retorts that his wife is worth “twenty times so much”. Rather than an aggressive chauvinist seeking to bully his wife into submission, and rather than a cold money-minded man, he comes across as a man who genuinely loves Katherina. The economic link suggests a contrasting lack of love on the part of the matriarchs, who marry their children off based on money. The replacement of family patriarchs with matriarchs allows us to think that, maybe, when Katherina says she is “ashamed that women are so simple”, it is not a demonstration of her total subjugation by male forces, but a statement of the women’s lack of love.

The ‘taming’ of Katherina is often seen as an imposition of misogynistic societal chains on a strong woman. In this production, however, the true Shakespeare, the sympathy with women characters, comes through. Katherina really suffers only minor discomfort and, importantly, her personality is not wiped out by Petruchio’s conditioning at all. Her final speech, accompanied by Anna Hogarth’s physically intrusive actions, shows her aggressiveness towards others again.

The Lion Theatre Company’s production has changed my perception of this play. Could it be that Katherina obeys Petruchio out of love? Here is the comedy. The two characters who initially seem most unpleasant are the only ones who truly understand love.

Kenneth Chan

 

10 February 2013

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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