We spent the afternoon watching the Globe Theatre production of The Taming of the Shrew, which had been filmed and was shown at the Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury. Despite my dissatisfaction the last time I watched a filmed version of a stage play, this time the experience was entirely positive.
In part this was for the simple reason that we got the play straight. There was no-one introducing the play and talking down to us as if we might not know how to behave in a theatre; no-one treating us to a rather patronising little interview during the interval. And though I reckon there were three camera positions, which would shift from long view to close-up, and would occasionally pan, we were always conscious that it was a stage play that we were seeing, we were just seeing it from a slightly privileged position.
But mostly this worked because it was such an exuberant production. Let’s face it, The Taming of the Shrew is a very problematic play. The only way you can really make it work for a modern audience is to emphasise the farce. And this was farce of a very high standard, fast moving, very sharply choreographed, decorated with lots of bits of business and with some good songs (including a gloriously filthy version of ‘The Cuckoo’s Nest’, complete with gestures).
Mostly you notice the exemplary ensemble playing. The cast, a rather old company, is made up of actors none of whose names I recognised (though there were a few face that I thought were familiar), and they played very well together. Even the smallest parts had their own bit of business to raise a laugh, and the interactions were so precisely timed that it was a joy just to watch the way they moved around each other. Nevertheless, there were some individuals who stood out. Tom Godwin as Bionello struck such figures on the stage that it came as no surprise to find that he has credits as a Movement Director. While Pearce Quigley played Grumio like a camp Liverpudlian, full of sighs and gestures and with a world-weary stance that made the slightest aside seem hilarious.
Though, of course, it is the two leads who make or break the play, and in this instance Simon Paisley Day, tall and skinny and wild as Petruchio, and Samantha Spiro, short and dark and fierce Katherina, were perfect foils for each other.
They opted, very wisely, I think, to include the framing narrative, in which a drunken Christopher Sly is made to believe he is a lord, for whom the play of the Taming of the Shrew is then performed. To this end, the film actually opens outside the Globe Theatre with a drunken England supporter staggering about and abusing everyone in sight. Somehow he makes his way into the theatre, and when someone tries to remove him he staggers on stage, pisses on the audience, and then falls into a drunken stupor. At this point the other actors appear, only partly in costume, and play the Christopher Sly trick on this supposed member of the audience. It is Tom Godwin, by the way, who drags up to pretend to be his wife, and then introduces the performance. I’ve always been a little puzzled by this prologue, particularly as it does not fully frame the play since we do not return to Sly at the end of the performance. But this time I began to see the sense of it. The high spirits of the tricksters act as a fitting prelude to the high spirits of the following performance. Perhaps more importantly, we are separated from the more troubling sexual politics of the play because it is not a picture of reality but a performance staged by a bunch of tricksters for a drunken lout, and so the more brutish aspects of the play come to seem if not more acceptable at least more appropriate.
The dissolution through varying layers of storytelling is made complete when the drunken lout who is Christopher Sly abruptly reappears as Petruchio.
What I had forgotten was how much of the play concerns men behaving very badly in order to trick their way into marriage with Bianca (who is here played, by Sarah MacRae, as almost as shrewish a characters as Kate). So we get old and feeble Gremio (Michael Bertenshaw), who displays such utter lack of self-awareness that he cannot begin to imagine how inappropriate a match for Bianca he might be. Meanwhile Hortensio (Rick Warden), a feeble and rather silly character, disguises himself as a music teacher despite a complete inability to play music, in order to become Bianca’s tutor. And at the same time a chancer, Lucentio (Joseph Timms), has just arrived in town with his servant Tranio (Jamie Beamish). Spotting Bianca he falls in love with her at once, and immediately swaps places with his servant so he can pretend to be yet another tutor for Bianca, while Tranio pretends to be yet another suitor for Bianca. A large proportion of the play, in fact, is given over to these four characters trying to trick and cheat each other, while manoeuvering their way into a profitable marriage. Against these unpretty visions of the marriage game there’s something almost honest in Petruchio’s wooing of Kate.
But, of course, none of those contending for Bianca’s hand has a chance because her weak-willed father, Baptista (Pip Donaghy), won’t let Bianca marry until he has the termagent Kate off his hands. At which point, enter Petruchio with his servant Grumio. Petruchio has just inherited his father’s estate (Grumio pointedly kicks a bucket every time Petruchio mentions his father’s death), but he’s still on the look out for a quick buck, and when he hears that Baptista is offering a fortune to anyone who will marry Kate, he decides he can tame the shrew.
This, of course, is where the play becomes very problematic for a modern audience. I think we are meant to suppose that, when they meet, Petruchio really does fall in love with Kate, but he can’t win her until he has proved himself by being equal to her fury. Certainly, there is something in the looks that Simon Paisley Day and Samantha Spiro exchange, and in the pauses in their dialogue, that might hint at such a supposition. But it is not there in the text. What we actually have is a play about sexual abuse, about a strong man breaking the will of a strong woman. He does this through a form of torture: Kate is physically abused, she is starved, she is denied sleep. The only way to get through this is to play it for laughs, and with very precise timing of the ensemble players that is exactly what this production achieves. When Petruchio turns up practically naked for their wedding, he becomes the object of fun. And there is a point, when Kate at last gives in to Petruchio’s mad ideas, when they meet a traveller on the road (who turns out to be Lucentio’s father), and greet him first as a woman and then as an old man, when you can see Kate and Petruchio as equals, a team who could have devilish fun together. If that sense could be maintained into the last scene, this would not be anything like such a problematic play. But unfortunately there is that last scene, when Kate bends herself totally to Petruchio’s will, and delivers an outspoken attack on the willfulness of women. And yet this whole scene feels false. When Petruchio is asked what he gets out of this he replies ‘a quiet life’, and yet we know from everything we have seen from Petruchio up to this point that a quiet life is exactly what he does not desire. Kate would not say what she does, Petruchio would not desire what he does; there is something missing from this scene, and what is missing is the complicity between Kate and Petruchio, the enjoyment of each other’s devilry, that we witnessed on the road.
Still, that scene is there, the abuse is there. Which makes this a deeply unpleasant play. And yet this is a supremely enjoyable production of it.