Friday, March 16, 2012

The problem is in the play - 'The Taming of the Shrew': RSC on tour, Nottingham Theatre Royal Thursday 15 March 2012

The Taming of the Shrew is a VERY uncomfortable play: there is just no getting around the domestic abuse, the sexual fantasy, the 'surrendered wife' business. Does that make it not worth seeing? Despite the plays difficulties, I was nevertheless sad to miss the Michelle Gomez version the RSC did a couple of years ago, so was pleased to catch this new one as it toured to selected UK venues - including Nottingham's Theatre Royal (til Saturday 17 March 2012).

David Caves and Lisa Dillon make up our turbulent couple this time around. As Petruchio, Caves stands a terrifying foot or more over the petite Dillon, but she's a fierce match for his bravado, in the macho setting of late 1940s Italy. This Katherina is angry at the patriarchal power her father holds over her and her simperingly manipulative sister, furious at the expectations of her gender to be sold to the highest bidder, and is scarcely ever separated from a flask of alcohol from which she regularly imbibes (is drink a means to anaesthetise Kate to her situation, a prop to 'justify' her 'Shrewish' behaviour, or a 'genuine' evidence of her out-of-control lack of appropriately behaved femininity?) It is in the gestures and actions between the lines that one gets the best sense of the power-plays at stake, even as the language can make you wince.*

That this production comes close to offering an admirable and enjoyable version of the play is credit to the combined efforts of the cast and director and set designer.

Set on a giant bed, the production makes use of the (still somewhat) contentious framing device [the Induction] of Christopher Sly - the drunken tinker manipulated by a Lord and his servants into believing he is a lord himself, and for whom the narrative of Petruchio and Katherina is performed as a play within the play. Sly is brilliantly brought to life by a rambunctiously grubby Nick Holder, and his pants - and lack of them - are the source of much entertainment throughout the play. But even here there is an undercurrent of discomfort as we see Sly exploited for entertainment purposes by a bored aristocrat out hunting. At the end, he's thrown back into his previous existence: is the tale of taming a fantasy for him, a projection of the Lord's own frustrations, or is the Induction merely a way of softening the audience to be comfortable with seeing Shrew as farce rather than disturbing and iniquitous in tone?

It's a tricky one, and I feel loathe to be too down on a production that makes the best of such problematic material - I nevertheless cannot help but be unconvinced by male reviewers reactions to this play: whilst it was good to see a 5-star review in the Telegraph, I still grimaced at reading "she finally submits, with humour and grace". Urgh. I can't quite allow my unreconstructed feminist head and heart think that particular phrasing and summary of Kate's big speech to Bianca and the Widow can stand...

Nevertheless, there has to be a way of reconciling that final big speech with the discomfort it induces. Perhaps it is better expressed in Susannah Clapp's review for The Observer which gets close to finding a way to articulate what works about this particular production:
Nothing can make the speech (really the only proper speech in the play) in which she asks women to put their hands under their husbands' feet either sympathetic or good sense. Yet in Bailey's production something mysterious happens. Dillon speaks it with such careful consideration – ironic, gentle, with a thrill of anticipation – that it becomes truly moving. This is Dillon's triumph but it is Caves's too: they act together as if they are reaching not a truce but an understanding, as if dominance and submission were a tease taken seriously only by the dullards around them. They have been partly playing, trying each other out, and now can go to bed in earnest. Bailey has made this ill-natured drama look as if it has a heart. And loins.

Certainly it is easy to miss that as Petruchio 'starves' and 'forces on' Katherina, he is also pushing his own body and appetites as well. There is perhaps (just) a mutuality to the subjugation ---- but I'm not entirely sure. It's an excellent production, well acted and structured: at the end of the day, the problem is the play.


On the back of such problematic material, Neil and I then had an interesting discussion on the way home: should all plays have curtain calls? It arose around such 'problematic' plays, plays of darkness, the thought-provoking, the difficult, even distressing.

I made the argument that although I can see the point against curtain calls being automatic, there is perhaps an even better argument for them when it IS a problem play.

I'm kinda (badly) appropriately some Brechtian-like ideas here: for surely what the curtain call does is shake the audience into awareness that what they have watched is a play. Not 'reality' but acting; these players are but actors, not an actual Kate and Petruchio, dealing in subjugation. To throw off the guise of their characters is a good thing, right? To recognise that these are showing their audience a play, a version of reality/unreality, is surely appropriate, yes?

Because otherwise there is a danger of being unable to distinguish fiction from reality (to believe that actor X really is their character, really is a murderous cheat, and therefore deserves vitriol and scorn in the street away from their acting role). The curtain call therefore draws attention to the artificiality of performance even as it allows a way of acknowledging how convincing the players have been as their characters.** But it remains disturbing the level of 'pleasure' audiences get in seeing a woman subdued, and in that context our applause remains problematic in breaking the spell.

* Both Neil and I do get uncomfortable when audiences - especially blokes - laugh QUITE so uproariously at how Kate is treated and 'tamed'.

** And of course, when directors and set-designers take their bows, the audience can appropriately boo what they inflicted on nevertheless excellent performers, pace the opera 'The Little Mermaid' recently.

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