The Taming of The Shrew – What do we do with Shakespeare now that he’s so tamed? (Theatre review)
The Taming of the Shrew
Montague Basement and PACT theatre
29 November – 10 December at PACT theatre
Image credits: Zaina Ahmed
At the time of Shakespeare, nearly all the marriages were two stage processes. First a binding domestic contract of obligation within the families and secondly a religious ceremonial right. These conventions are questioned in The Taming of the Shew, and this current production by Montague Basement seeks to bring this examination to the fore, by cutting all the additional plot devices, and presenting us with the pared down story of Katherine and Bianca and their respective approaches to convention. However, within this patient examination of this difficult play, the audience is also asked to question our conventions. That is, the convention of Shakespeare himself.
Katherine, our Shrew is the anti-establishment rebel and Bianca, the beautiful younger sister, she who is blessed to take advantage of the obligations of conventional society. Both the women are cursed to marriage. Katherine, who is unlikely to marry well, defends herself against this with strong willed shrewish behaviour, and disdain for appropriate manners. Bianca defends herself by pretending to act within social practice, but only when it suits her. Our treatment of Shakespeare himself – do we defy him openly or do we incorporate him according to our whims – becomes the central question of the play.
The marriage of Katherine to Petruchio causes a challenge to convention. It starts with Katherine’s rebellious nature. Petruchio flouts Baptista Minola’s use of social rules in waging the desirability of his second daughter against the lack of appeal of his strong willed older daughter by requesting Katherine’s hand as a desire to enjoy life after the death of his father. Katherine is supposedly the very opposite of this desire. Petruchio then chooses to outwit Katherine, choosing to see through her behaviour to prove himself. He refuses the second part of the ritual, the conventions Katherine has herself despised, and arrives late to marry Katherine in a ceremony that shows abject disdain for religious practise. After picking Kathrine up and storming off with her against her will, he refuses to exercise his marital rites, and instead begins a complicated (and abusive) process of damning the accouterments of the female as object to win her over emotionally. Only when he has her compliance and respect, possibly an example of her free will (or its polar opposite – she is tamed after all) is he willing to take her as a husband has the right to do.
This stands in stark contrast to the relationship between Bianca and Lucentio who act within the bounds of deception from the start. Wooing Bianca is not a straightforward matter. It involves lies and trickery of appearance. Her marriage to Lucentio is not conventional, but it is an elopement, a conventional sort of rebellion. It is a rebellious act within acceptable behaviour. It is toward the end of the play, we discover the real Bianca, the one who has no respect for her husband nor their relationship. She sees her husband as a fool for calling for her in response to a bet.
Is not our relationship to Shakespeare a great example of the evolution of these two women through time? His audiences were initially Katherines, rebellious outspoken riff raff delighting in the interruption of convention. Today he is enfolded into the establishment, the King of it in fact. An establishment who use him as an acceptable tool to mimic a faux rebellion against which he is societies founding father and central support.
The Taming of the Shrew is a difficult play for Shakespeare lovers. As director Caitlin West argues in her introductory notes, The Taming of the Shrew is the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays to drive the question of the writer’s relevancy. 2016 gave us the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and more than any other of his plays, The Taming of the Shrew asks us, what we are doing when we insist on preserving Shakespeare? What are we clinging on to here? Even if there are many ways to see this play, it still sparks the original discomforts inside us, and at best it can be argued that this is a metaphor. At worst, it brings to surface the fear that this has exposed the writer’s true feelings about women – an attitude that inevitably drives us to understand if he saw women this way, we equally can’t trust the way he saw men. Many people would argue with that perception, and we can be sure they will continue to want to revive Shakespeare, but his place in our schools, and theatrical reverence can surely be tested? Surely Shakespeare is not so weak a playwright that abandoned of our obsessive and hysterical cultural support, he will die? Why do we refuse him relevant cultural commentary today when he seemed so committed to it in his time?
These are the real, modern questions behind The Taming of the Shrew. Even if we think the entire play is a metaphor, it’s a clumsy one. This play is too often seen for what it isn’t than what it is, and that concern should drive us to ask why we continue to make so many apologies for Shakespeare, especially when so many are necessary. When are dignified literary deaths allowed to occur?
The beauty of Montague Basement’s intelligent production of the clarity of radical social insight is posited against the overt sexist nature of the treatment of Katherine. Robert Boddington’s Petruchio is a loveable, recognisable every man. Hannah Cox’s Katherine is a spicy, feisty woman of great beauty and tremendous fun. The way the couple fit together to unsettle societies expectations is included in the casting and Caitlin Wests direction. But she visions of Katherine almost naked and starving is too difficult to see as anything other than a threat to autonomy and personhood. It is too stark an example of abuse, magnified here under Saro Lusty-Cavallari’s stark cold fluorescent lights. It’s as if Caitlin West invites us into the warmth of recognition of our English western hero and then strips away the protection we perpetually afford him via stage lights.
Montague Basement is one of Sydney’s most interesting experimental theatre companies, often using their great intelligence and beautiful youth to rush in where angels fear to tread. The questions inherent in this production which is currently showing at PACT with a shadow performance of the macabre Macbeth are worth examining and opening yourself up for. It’s a production more interested in you and your thoughts that Shakespeare and his motivations. Make sure you take your interacting thinking cap with you.
A fast shout out to the cast who are also performing Macbeth on the alternate nights. Is there anything as thrilling as ambitious young people taking it on?