September 22, 2012, by Peter Kirwan
The Taming of the Shrew @ Shakespeare’s Globe
Standing in the pit of the Globe on Thursday night, a disturbance broke out behind me. A steward remonstrated with a lager-swilling England fan, with tattoos on his cheeks and unkempt beard. Tourists moved to protect their belongings and their friends as the noisy man refused to leave the auditorium, then pushed through the crowd to jump onto the stage, where he promptly threw up. Cast members and stage management appeared, tutting and murmuring as they tried to work out what to do, before Security were called and the play was cancelled.
I’ve seen enough Shrews to recognise a Sly-as-audience member scene when I see one, but this Induction worked tremendously to create one of the most lively, communal Shrews I’ve yet seen. With the Lord and his servants played as Globe actors and stagehands, the company were freed up to improvise, making the most of rude puns and repartee with the groundlings. Tom Godwin’s Page received a resounding cheer and wolf-whistles as he emerged in female costume to continue the charade, and the crowd joined in with roars to persuade Simon Paisley Day’s Sly that he was really a lord. By the time Sly and his ‘wife’ descended into the pit to watch the play from the crowd’s point of view, a festival atmosphere had been established that persisted throughout Toby Frow’s production.
As has been Globe practice with comedies often considered problematic (most notably the 2007 Merchant of Venice) the production attempted to recapture something of the fun of Shrew. Rather than using the play to make a statement about misogyny or domestic violence, as is now standard, Frow drew inspiration from the Burton/Taylor film romp to revel in the back-and-forth snappy dialogue, the broadly drawn characters and the knockabout physical comedy. Crucial to this were a series of performances that deliberately turned the characters into cartoons, exaggerating mannerisms and playing always to the crowd.
This was strongest in the case of relatively minor characters. Jamie Beamish’s Tranio was a revelation, stealing every scene in which he appeared and privileging this character’s point of view within the play. His relationship with Joseph Timms’s youthful, exuberant Lucentio was one of easy mockery, especially as he alternately mimicked and rolled his eyes at his master’s more demonstrative shows of love. Once posing as Lucentio, Beamish took delight in causing his cloak to swoop behind him, calling for cheers from the crowd and strutting with confidence into the centre of the suitors’ quarrels. This also served to clarify important plot points: as Baptista put the condition on Tranio’s victory in the bidding war, Tranio’s face fell comically as he realised he would now have to make good on his offer. Perhaps most importantly, his performance was loud, demanding an energy and speed from the scenes that forced them into the hyper-realistic, preventing them slipping into seriousness. His scream to the audience as he recognised the ‘true Vincentio’ was especially priceless,
He was countered by Pearce Quiqley’s gloriously understated performance as Grumio (sometimes a little too understated, to a point that he was difficult to hear). Quigley offered a revolutionary take on the role, playing him as a Baldrick to Petruchio’s Blackadder. Importantly, Quigley understands the importance of platea in performing at the Globe. He was almost never entirely ‘in’ the scene, offering instead a meta-performance that commented on his own role (as if every speech was marked ‘aside’). This style of playing fitted the part beautifully, giving the audience a way into the action while also rendering it safe, a performance framed within a shared relationship between cast and audience. Quigley’s performance looked lazy but concealed difficult work; he affected a detached air that allowed him to frequently put on small sideshows, whether acting out Kate’s fall from Petruchio’s horse with kitchenware or offering fey imitations of the tailor. But when necessary he snapped back into the role, as if remembering to perform his necessary function within the plot.
Even more importantly, this was a thoroughly funny Shrew. Many of the jokes were too groan-worthy to be successfully repeated – suffice to say that Grumio’s repeated ‘accidental’ kicking of a bucket when Petruchio mentioned his dead father was one of the highlights. Frow’s attention to language drew out much of the play’s rich bawdy, as in the tongue/tail image shared in Petruchio and Kate’s first encounter. No possible innuendo was missed, and extra laughs were gained as the actors repeatedly paused and sighed pointedly at the audience for daring to read a sexual pun into their ‘innocent’ words.
A long platform sloped down into the pit, and provided occasion for a number of intrusions into and out of the audience, most notably Day’s entrance to the wedding as Petruchio in a ridiculous hat, accompanied by Grumio who chomped on a bit and knocked coconut shells together. As Day stormed outside the chapel, he stripped down to modesty pouch, his bare backside repeatedly directed at the audience. The physical and visual comedy was matched to impeccable timing throughout, as in Sarah MacRae’s lightning fast changes from feisty combatant in the brawl with her sister to sobbing victim as soon as her father appeared. The often-tedious scenes in Petruchio’s house were enlivened by a rowdy group of servants, who entered to a bawdy folk song and ran desperately about the stage as Petruchio threw food and furniture, and banged their heads against walls and pillars. The cruelty in the violence was kept largely in check by the cartoon-like ability of characters to quickly recover, and the amount of times a hurt or beaten character was greeted with sympathetic calls from the audience – especially Hortensio and Gremio – spoke to the effectiveness of the production in conjuring a simple appeal from each of its participants. Everyone participated in play, even Vincentio who addressed Petruchio as the ‘merry mistress’ following the trick played on him on the road.
The play’s central relationship provided a suitable anchor for the rather frenetic comedy elsewhere. Day’s Petruchio and Samantha Spiro’s Katherina were both dominant forces, making their collision all the more fun to behold. Spiro drew heavily on Elizabeth Taylor’s performance, making Kate predominantly a self-aware, wily but tempestuous force whose temper was driven by frustration and intolerance, as well as by a rather sad sense of rejection by her father. After Baptista left the stage following his first appearance, the doors in the tiring house were closed behind him and Kate found herself locked out. Storming, she gave herself a run-up and threw herself against them, causing the entire edifice to fall down, to the shock of the ‘stagehands’ revealed behind, who quickly rushed to rebuild the scenery. Spiro’s performance was, in this instance, too big for the world of the play, and the ‘taming’ could legitimately be seen as a process of socialisation, she and the similarly confident Petruchio finding balance in the tradition of humours comedy.
Day’s Petruchio was reminiscent of John Cleese’s Puritanical performance for the BBC film. Tall, strait-laced and rigid in his application of rules, this was a carefully controlled Petruchio who prized order and calm, and in order to achieve it created chaos. Pleasingly, he was ‘tamed’ as much as ‘tamer’ for much of the first half. After Kate struck him in their first meeting, he pulled her close and threatened her. There was a pause as the threat sunk in, and then she punched him hard again, knocking him to the floor and sitting astride him. The initial compact was not based on him scaring her, but on a battle of wits that ended with him turning her raised fits into punching the air in celebration; her screams of anger into cries of jubilation; her attempted punches into her desperate wish to hold his hand. The physical inventiveness of these scenes was a joy to watch, both laying a foundation for their relationship while also paying close attention to the text.
There is, perhaps, also an ‘and yet’ with the Shrew, and unfortunately that came with the conclusion. Spiro’s Kate may have been largely cartoonish, but she was just too human to allow this reviewer entirely to forget the abuse to which she was being subjected. Her cries of frustration as first Bianca and then Petruchio framed and silenced her were upsetting, and her repeated eagerness and disappointment as Grumio offered her various foods allowed us to see something of her deprivation. Most difficult to watch was her complete exhaustion, which couldn’t help but give the sense of a woman worn into submission. The final wager, amid a raucous gathering of men, saw Spiro deliver an entirely straight rendition of the ‘tamed’ speech that saw her finally put her hand under Petruchio’s foot, at which he knelt down gratefully with her. The resounding applause and cheers of the audience at this suitably tamed Kate were, to my taste, deeply problematic. While there is genuine academic and literary interest in attempting to understand how this play functioned as sixteenth century comedy, that need not entail a twenty-first century celebration of its outcome. The pain and discomfort to which Kate was subjected in this production was severe enough to register, yet accepted implicitly in the conclusion as necessary to her final complicity in a patriarchal structure, and that is surely not a message we should be applauding. One might look for a form of meta-framing or problematisation, but with no final return to the Sly scenes or a sense of the two acting on each other as equals, the production ended on a slightly sour note of a ‘wrong’ woman made right through carefully targeted domestic abuse.
If a carnival atmosphere licenses a form of communal complicity in female subjugation, however, then it also speaks to the absolute success of the production in connecting with its audience. While I would have preferred the production to either articulate some form of critique, or else lighten the tone of Kate’s ‘taming’ still further, Frow’s stunning production was otherwise a delight. Packed full of comic business and working the audience hard, the company both explicated and expanded on the play, reclaiming it (even with problems) as an entertaining and bitingly funny comedy of language.