May 17, 2016, by Peter Kirwan
The Taming of the Shrew @ Shakespeare’s Globe
NB – this review is of a production still in preview.
In fact, not only was the Globe’s new production of The Taming of the Shrew still in preview, but the understudies weren’t yet fully rehearsed, as became apparent as the production’s interval stretched out to half an hour with still no sign of the actors. Sadly, Kathy Rose O’Brien, playing Kate, hurt her foot badly at the end of the second half, and the production halted while the company worked on a strategy to compensate. To great applause, and after a 45-minute break, O’Brien continued in the role by sitting in a chair, with Edward MacLiam’s Petruchio carrying her on and off-stage. The on-stage celebrations at the production’s end, and the uproarious reaction from the audience, were fitting tributes to a bold decision to carry on, and one of the loveliest communal moments I’ve experienced at the Globe.
Given the issues the production faced tonight, it’s difficult to give it a full write-up. The intimacy created between Petruchio and Kate as he supported her on and off-stage, helped her about his house while simultaneously taming her, and stood with her clapping on the final jig, touchingly blurred the lines between actors and characters, and the extent to which it affected characterisation was hard to judge. What I’ll offer here, instead, are some observations on the effects the production did achieve, unintentionally or no.
Caroline Byrne’s production is the first I’ve seen in the Globe since the Emma Rice regime began, and the space was fascinatingly different, if only because it had so much stuff in it. While the ability to create lighting effects was largely subtle (some blue-lit slow-motion sequences notwithstanding), the additional lamps and speakers were constantly intrusive, and the large semi-circular extension to the stage made for a very cramped pit. The bigger problem, however, was the sound quality. The haphazard shifting between amplified and unaided sound rendered far too much of the dialogue difficult to hear from the seats, with incidental music frequently blaring through the speakers and drowning out actors. While actors were rarely amplified, moreover, it seemed that they were falling into the trap of assuming that they would be amplified; Petruchio’s short lecture on taming to the audience was affectingly delivered, but I had to strain desperately to catch the words. If the Globe is going to use amplified sound, it needs to very quickly consider how it is training (and re-training) actors and directors to use the space.
The production was set in 1916, with a fully Irish (or at least Irish-accented) cast evoking the period of the Easter Rising. The production avoided overt reference to the politics of the moment, concentrating instead on that aspect of the Rising that promised to extend the franchise to women. Morna Regan, working as dramaturg and lyricist on the production, interwove a new song inspired by Yeats called ‘Numbered in the Song’ as a framing device that mythologised Kate, seeing her struggle for self-determination as that of all Irish women. At its most evocative, the song saw Kate assert that there could be no freedom while one of them was still bound, and that she would share the work of war with her husband. When the song was taken up by the ensemble at the production’s end, they all removed their shoes in a gesture of equality, adding a poignant physical statement to the closing jig (made doubly so, of course, by Kate’s indisposition).
The production dealt with the play’s thorny sexual politics by adopting very different tones for each half. The first half – until Kate and Petruchio’s departure following their wedding – was a broad, battle-of-the-sexes comedy. Petruchio’s initial wooing of Kate was an impulsive meeting, Kate veering between shrieks of laughter as she fled from Petruchio’s tickling and genuine anger as she smacked him hard. Petruchio’s threat to cuff her was followed by a second blow from Kate, and when he tried to slap her back, she grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back; he only managed to escape by performing arousal at his confinement. O’Brien was thoroughly enjoyable as a physically strong Kate, who garnered whoops from the audience when she put the hapless suitors in their place. She got as good as she gave, too; in one sequence she dragged Bianca around the stage at the end of a long rope, in which Baptista also became tangled (Gary Lilburn was applauded when forced to skip the rope), but later she found herself being wrangled into her wedding dress and corset by Bianca and five other ladies, leaving her a maypole at the mercy of six long ropes.
The tone changed substantially for the second half. All the servants apart from Helen Norton’s interestingly diffident Grumio were cut, and Petruchio’s home was miserable. The tiring house was built out into a dark grey structure, with nooks for the musicians, and the oppressive monotonous colour of the backdrop, particularly after sunset, was oppressive. The pipes sounded a long, low drone underscoring Petruchio’s taming, while husband and wife sat opposite one another, he quietly explaining to her what she could or could not have. It was impossible to tell how much this was down to O’Brien’s injury, but the tone and accents made this sequence feel like a Martin McDonagh play of rural Irish oppressiveness, Kate as beaten down by the isolation, claustrophobia and hopelessness as by Petruchio’s actions. The only real levity in this sequence came from Amy Conroy’s smug and then outraged Tailor, but otherwise Petruchio’s home was relentlessly downbeat.
The quiet arc of the main plot was thrown into relief by the energetic creativity of the rest of the ensemble. Imogen Doel was a standout a diminutive Tranio, whether exchanging clothes with her tall master (Aaron Heffernan), borrowing an audience member’s water bottle to splash over Lucentio’s swooning face, or presenting herself elegantly on a scooter when disguised as Lucentio. Her rapport with the audience was complemented by Molly Logan as an enthusiastic Biondello, and the two made for an entertaining double act as they presented themselves for Bianca’s hand. They were only a little humbled by their offstage beating at Vincentio’s hand, appearing to serve drinks with bruised and bandaged faces for the final scene.
The Globe’s new commitment to 50/50 male/female casts led to a relative bolstering of roles for women – not only were Grumio, Tranio and Biondello played by women, but the Widow (Conroy again) was given a much expanded role. Here, she appeared with Hortensio from his first appearance, a silent presence who was pushed back by Hortensio as she tried to answer the door. Her presence in the play’s first half was almost entirely to huff and look concerned, and the production chose not to make the relationship entirely clear, but it made me notice for the first time the line in which Hortensio notes that the Widow has loved him for as long as he has loved Bianca. It wasn’t too much of a leap to assume that Hortensio was taking advantage of the Widow, living with her while openly pursuing Bianca, a decision which cast him in no positive light and which gave an extra sense of pleasure to seeing him with a violin wrapped around the back of his head.
The production found moments of surprising pathos, too. Raymond Keane sobbed as Gremio as he offered all he had in a desperate attempt to outbid Tranio-as-Lucentio, and there was something sad in Louis Dempsey’s attempts as Vincentio to find out what had happened to his real son. But the emotional heavy lifting was left to Kate, and then finally shared with Petruchio. O’Brien was extraordinary both before and after her injury, doing justice to the wit and individuality of Kate while loading her trials with the sense of a broader societal conflict. The final scene was the section most obviously affected by the need to re-block, as O’Brien was physically unable to ‘go and fetch’ the other women. But the difficulty with which she struggled to her feet to deliver the speech was moving at both fictional and real levels, and it was as Petruchio watched his wife speak about oppression that he finally appeared to be moved by her. Kate’s beautifully delivered speech was filled with pain that connected to the choric framing material; her responsibility to serve her husband spoke for a society that normalised this relationship. Petruchio was embarrassed as she tried to kneel, running over and pulling her to her feet, and then hiding his face in his hands during the rest of her speech. The precise arc here was difficult to judge from my restricted vantage point, but I read this as a political awakening point for both Petruchio and Kate, as she finally spoke publicly about her oppression and he took action to change. The speech segued into another pass at ‘Numbered in the Song’, and the shared gesture with which the ensemble all took off their shoes to sing about the forgotten voices was poignant. One prominent line in the song spoke of Kate’s right to go to war with her husband, connecting the play’s mise-en-scene to its political moment, and the image it pushed towards was one of solidarity between man and woman as they faced the world together. How successful this would be on other nights is impossible to see; here, the uneasy intimacy added to the second half by O’Brien’s injury did much to render Kate and Petruchio a symbiotic pair, where the one’s pain directly affected the other, and it became easier to believe in a Kate and Petruchio who would act individually as part of a tight unit.
The company did a sterling job dealing with difficult circumstances, and it’ll be very interesting to see how this affects the rest of the run. While it’s certainly not the Shrew that the company might have intended, this was a fascinating glimpse of the discoveries possible even at the point of cancelling a show.