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Saturday, 13 June 2015

Review: Taming of the Shrew. Shrewd, Abraham, very shrewd.

Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare
Directed by Chris Abraham
Designed by Julie Fox (set, costumes), Kimberly Purtell (lighting), Thomas Ryder Payne (sound and compositions)

Ben Carlson (foreground) as Petruchio, Deborah Hay as Katherina,
with members of the company. Photo by David Hou
From the moment of reading Chris Abraham’s director’s notes in the house program, no one should think that his interpretation of Taming of the Shrew is anything but thoughtful and modern. In fact, he reveals everything that he is about to show us as clearly as if were emblazoned on the stage itself.

The “controversy” of Taming of the Shrew is that it was written in a time when women were commonly thought of as “chattel”, and women’s roles in society were extremely limited – wife, mother, whore, nun or spinster.  If a woman was very lucky she married well and was widowed young, and could then live a life on her own terms, and if unlucky she was an eccentric spinster possibly associated with witchcraft. Not a good time to be a woman, unless of course you were the Queen.

Deborah Hay as Katherina; Michael Spenser-Davis as Gremio.
Photo by David Hou.
However scholars have made the argument for decades that Shakespeare never meant Shrew to be a purely misogynistic story of a man taking his wife to school. There are signs throughout the text and perhaps the most telling is Petruchio’s use of the falconry metaphor, in which a master must tame his falcon so they may work together – too cruel, he breaks its spirit and the bird will live in fear; too gentle and the bird will remain something wild.

Mr. Abraham puts his finger on the crux of Shrew – no one is who they seem to be.  It is meta-theatre at its best – we know the characters are actually actors, but Mr. Abraham takes this a step further in a delightful interpretation of the induction, a plot device of Shakespeare’s making that frames the story to a play within a play. I cannot in good conscience ruin this by giving away the details, but it underscores Mr. Abraham’s entire vision, one he carries through to the very end.

L-R: Mike Shara as Hortensio, Sarah Afful as Bianca, Cyrus Lane
as Lucentio. Photo by David Hou.
The multiple disguises can be daunting for an audience not familiar with the story (summarised nicely here) and the romping, frivolous subplot threatens to overwhelm the more serious relationship of Kate and Petruchio at times, but this appears to be Abraham’s point. It comes down to which husband-wife duo at the end of the play will have the happiest marriage? Hint: the two who come together out of understanding and respect, not deception and lust.

Gordon S. Miller as Biondello, Tom Rooney
as Tranio. Photo by David Hou.
The actors who make it clear that the romance of the subplot is not to be taken seriously are Tom Rooney and Gordon S. Miller as the sidekicks Tranio and Biondello. Mr. Rooney and Mr. Miller’s side-splitting antics could rival Abbott and Costello, and they play the parts like a couple of frat boys who successfully pull off the biggest practical joke of their careers. MikeShara plays the usually buffoonish Hortensio more as an intelligent observer, MichaelSpenser-Davis’ Gremio enjoys a big-codpiece-swinging contest, and Sarah Afful and Cyrus Lane reveal the subplot lovers Bianca and Lucentio to be young pups in lust, revelling in their secret dalliances.

L-R: Ben Carlson as Petruchio, Peter Hutt as Baptista and
Brian Tree as Grumio, with members of the company. Photo by
David Hou.
Of course, the truth of the play comes down to the relationship between Petruchio and Kate, here played by real-life husband and wife team Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay. Mr. Carlson brings an integrity to Petruchio – be may be a rough, down-on-his-luck rustic (the fur and feathers give it away), but he makes it clear from first seeing Kate that he understands the type of woman she is, and that she is his perfect match.

Ben Carlson as Petruchio and Deborah Hay
as Katherina. Photo by David Hou.
But the stage really belongs to Deborah Hay. Her Kate is wild and to be pitied (though she’d hate it), and is much slower to accept Petruchio’s eccentric wooing, but she gets there. Their final scene is electric with tension and suspense – Mr. Abraham keeps both the audience and his characters guessing as to the outcome. Petruchio remains unsure if he has tamed Kate or if he has broken her. His relief when she appears is palpable, and Ms. Hay’s hammer-like delivery of that difficult, wonderful final speech leaves him and everyone else dumbstruck. Ms. Hay throws so many complexities into that final speech - acceptance, shame, fierce pride and finally, a challenge to Petruchio himself. And, the audience realizes, that at this moment Kate herself is still unsure of Petruchio’s true intent and feelings. It is a thrilling moment, and a remarkable feat for both actors and director to create such a highlight. 

Full disclosure: Taming of the Shrew is my favourite Shakespeare play, I was probably going to like this production no matter what. However, the thrill of discovering even newer ways of seeing my favourite story and characters is a gift I truly appreciate, so, thank-you.

Taming of the Shrew continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 10th.

Centre: Ben Carlson as Petruchio and Deborah Hay as
Katherina, with members of the company.
Photo by David Hou.

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