Notes on The Taming of the Shrew by Sport for Jove at the Seymour Centre.
There is a virtue in deciding not to pretend to solve the unsolvable.
Having thought about The Taming of the Shrew as long and as intimately as I have my conclusion, for what it’s worth, is that there is no way to make it both a romantic comedy and at the same time not wildly offensive. But (and this is crucial) I have come to believe that this would have been so even when it was first penned, and that its primary driving force is to produce in the audience member the confusion of feeling something to be right and simultaneously feeling it to be wrong. We want Kate and Petruchio to get together and have a great relationship and a great future together, but the framework within which we see it happen is horrible. And I don’t for a moment believe that this is because Shakespeare wanted us to think long and hard about the way our society treats women. I think he merely wanted to make sure his audience left this show compelled to talk about what they had just seen. That was how one made money in the theatre.
Director Damien Ryan has thought long, deeply and very intelligently about Shrew, and he has crafted a massively enjoyable night in the theatre that does ask us to go away feeling good about Kate and Petruchio’s marriage, but doesn’t tell us to go away feeling good about the society that requires such manoeuvres to bring them together.
Ryan’s signature use of everything on stage is here. Setting the story in an Italian silent film studio of the 1920s allows for racks of costumes, ladders, lights, cameras and a swivel-set Wild West/Italian villa building. This provides a platform for as much comic business as the text can bear, including an immensely clever use of silent film footage, where some secret filming and swift editing by Grumio allows him and his master to convince the other men that Kate was pleased by the wooing.
In Bianca the production skewers a cultural shift in the ideal woman since the time when the most desirable potential wife was a girl who displayed modesty through silence. Today we expect the woman pursued by many men to be glamorously sexual, not reticently demure. This Bianca is a femme fatale, not an ingénue. It is a neatly humorous point that a film star in the 1920s would have been silent even when she was being projected as most active. There is an added gimmick of Bianca appearing in a new frock every time you blink. However, this means the contrast between her and her sister rests on Kate not caring a jot how she appears to men, as she strides about in her aviatrix suit, rather than on one sister being (ostensibly) meek and the other argumentative. The problem this creates is that it causes us to wonder why this is something that should need changing. If fact, the only way end-of-play Kate seems to have changed from beginning-of-play Kate is that she doesn’t hit people anymore. Which is a good thing, but hardly a transformation.
All this however, doesn’t tend to enter the mind during the course of a fast-paced, expertly delivered, glamorously presented comedy. These are thoughts born of sober reflection later on, which brings me back to my initial point that this is a play that is both unsolvable, and designed to make you realise that after the event. When it is filled up with cleverness and heart as this production is, there is little point in fighting the pleasures of this story. The best possible thing to do with this production, and this play, is to feel all the contradictory feelings it prompts, and then talk about them afterwards.