The Taming of the Shrew, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 28 January 2012
Wrapped up in the framing device of the Christopher Sly induction, tucked in among the comic folds of the Bianca/Lucentio subplot, right at the heart of this production, lay the mystery of the relationship between Katherine and Petruchio.
While the various layers of packaging were neatly presented and heartily amusing, some ingenious tinkering with the core of the play made it truly sophisticated and provocative.
The programme cover showed the pair on bed sheets with blonde Katherine gritting her teeth as her hand grasped Petruchio’s jaw, pulling his head back into a contortion that showed her sadistic domination of him. This image was a reversal of the dynamic of the play in which Petruchio has the upper hand.
Productions can sometimes show Kate ironically playing along with Petruchio’s taming game or give us a Kate who is genuinely ground down by his macho piggery.
The role reversal in the photo hinted at how this production managed to dramatise our ambivalent reactions and interpretations of the text. This version explored the mystery by presenting us with a mystery.
The set was made to look like an enormous bed with a sheet draped over the thrust, and steps at the back hidden under a billow of fabric that looked at first like a bolster, but which with time was trampled down to a reveal the steps underneath. A curving back wall like a large headboard could open in whole or in part to represent spaces beyond the immediate scene of action.
The entry of Katherine (Lisa Dillon) and the rest of her family in 1.1 was transformed from a simple appearance in a public place into the occasion of her marriage to a suitor.
Escorted in formal procession, she was held within a shrew’s violin: a wooden restraint with holes for the neck and arms. The neck violin was removed and she and the groom knelt while the priest began to perform the marriage ceremony.
All seemed normal until she suddenly punched her intended husband in the crotch, rose to her feet and began fighting madly. She brandished the neck violin, kicked and scrapped, scattering the assembled company.
When her anger had abated, Baptista spoke to Bianca’s suitors to remind them that the younger daughter could not be wed until her sister Katherine had been successfully married off. Katherine protested about being made a ‘stale’, still out of breath from violently dispatching her previous suitor. Her words in this context were more powerful as she had displayed the vehemence behind them.
There was more disruptive behaviour from her at the start of act two. We could see that Katherine had bound Bianca’s wrists with rope, stuffed an apple in her mouth, and painted her face with exaggerated make-up in an attempt to get Bianca to say which of her suitors she most admired.
Hortensio tried to introduce her to the lute, but she broke it over his head offstage. The fake tutor returned to show the hole punched through the middle of it. Given Katherine’s use of the neck violin as a weapon when we first saw her, her violent appropriation of an actual stringed instrument seemed somehow apt. The lute became thematically linked with the restraint seen in the interpolated action of 1.1.
Her first encounter with Petruchio began as might have been expected given her previous behaviour. In the face of his confident attempts at dominating her, and at a heavily built 6’ 4” David Caves was certainly an imposing presence, Katherine gave as good as she got. Petruchio lay on the ground and invited Kate to sit on him, which she did, but by sitting directly on his face. As indicated in the text, she slapped him causing him to threaten to strike her.
Undaunted by her resistance, Petruchio insisted that Kate would be married to him. Her response was to urinate where she stood in silent resistance. She spat in his face, but Petruchio merely wiped the spittle away, tasting it with relish.
They were by all appearances an ill-matched couple. But the production had already subtly hinted at underlying connections between the combatants.
When we first saw her, Kate, despite her frustration and aggression, sometimes lay down on the huge bed sheet covering the stage. This relaxed posture was one that was adopted by only two other characters: Petruchio and his mini-me servant Grumio.
Kate and Petruchio both sported that emblem of rebellion and nonconformity, the tattoo. Kate had her name inked onto her shoulder while Petruchio had some patterns on his arms. He also acquired some new tattoos of Kate’s name just before their marriage.
When relaxing at home, Kate would routinely lounge around with the top of her slip showing. She shared this sartorial casualness with Petruchio, whose wedding outfit was the epitome of casual.
In the light of Kate’s first failed wedding, the day of her marriage to Petruchio proved to be a turning point in the production.
Instead of planning to attack Petruchio, Kate’s main complaint was that he might not turn up at the church, saying he “Yet never means to wed where he hath woo’d”.
When Petruchio and Kate returned from the wedding, we heard plenty about his misbehaviour, but nothing of Kate’s resistance. Seen in the context of her first onstage ‘marriage’ this wedding appeared to proceed with her consent.
Kate refused to depart with Petruchio, who responded by turning Kate into a Cleopatra in reverse, wrapping her up in a carpet and carrying her off.
Petruchio’s household, which we saw at the start of act four, was squalid and tatty; very much in need of the funds that his marriage to Kate would have brought him. Petruchio burst through the door and stood in the doorway, laughing and scattering bank notes over his servants.
This created the impression that money was his main incentive for marrying, something accentuated by Kate’s ignoble entrance crawling along the ground under the coats of the retainers.
As Petruchio began to tame Kate like a wild bird, keeping her awake and denying her sustenance, there seemed to be little change in her defiance. After trying to get Grumio to bring her food, she heard Petruchio coming and pretended to have hanged herself by lying next to an overturned chair with a noose round her neck. Petruchio saw straight through the deception.
With Kate denied her cap and gown, Petruchio decided to head back to her father’s house and berated Kate for contradicting him. At this stage he appeared to be more or less in charge, but Kate still resisted his absolute control.
On the journey back to Padua, Kate was holding a candlestick holder and a copper saucepan. Petruchio insisted that she agree with his version of reality, taking the sun for the moon. She sarcastically agreed with him, prompting Petruchio to change his mind so that moon became sun once again.
Then an interesting thing happened. Kate approached him with candlestick and saucepan in hand. Standing toe to toe with her oppressor she said:
What you will have it nam’d, even that it is,
And so it shall be so for Katherine.
Her words were those of defeat, but her delivery of them made plain her persistent refusal to submit. There was a pause as Petruchio gazed long at her. He faltered for something to say and then they continued.
Petruchio appeared to be changed, almost impressed, by her continuing defiance. If this was a relationship with chemistry, then both of them were undergoing transformation.
Kate continued to play a sarcastic game when Petruchio demanded she address old Vincentio as a young woman.
Another facet of Kate and Petruchio’s complex and evolving relationship was revealed after the real Vincentio had been reunited with his family.
Petruchio asked Kate for a kiss, but she was reluctant to comply. He made to leave but Kate called him back and granted his wish. This formed the first true moment of tenderness between them and also the first time that we saw Petruchio grant Kate a request. In the context of what happened on the road to Padua, Kate must now have realised that she did indeed have some power over Petruchio.
The final scene of the play took place after the weddings of two other couples. Kate was wearing Petruchio’s hat.
The precise meaning of this was open to different interpretations.
Looked at one way, it marked Kate’s capitulation and acceptance of Petruchio’s choice of headwear. The battle commenced back at his house had been won. When Petruchio supported his wife in her spat with the Widow, she was symbolically tied to him, so that she was wearing his battle colours.
But on the other hand it could also be seen as her adopting, and in some sense owning, a symbol of Petruchio’s male power.
This ambivalence was one of many in the production, and the final scene in the play brought them all into focus.
Petruchio placed his bet that Kate would come when he called her and she duly returned when requested. As she walked back onstage, still wearing his hat, she had something of a smirk on her face.
Her “What is your will, sir, that you send for me?” contained a hint of jocular sarcasm that seemed to point the production towards the knowing, ironic, tongue-in-cheek end of the interpretative scale. At this point, it seemed that the pair were colluding in a joke at the expense of the others, which would fit with the more optimistic reading of Kate wearing her husband’s hat.
Kate brought the other women back into the room. Petruchio ordered her to throw her cap to the ground, which meant that she discarded her husband’s own hat. The complexity of meaning inherent in her donning the hat therefore also came into play in the opposite sense when she removed it.
Kate did not respond immediately to Petruchio’s final request that she should tell the other women about their duties as wives. Kate paused and mulled over what to do, by no means obeying instantly.
The other men reacted in triumph, thinking that Petruchio’s luck had finally run out and that he had not succeeded in taming his shrew completely.
Kate sat down on a chair, paused and then began to speak in utter earnestness her long speech about the subjugation of wife to husband.
Her tone of voice had none of the sarcastic knowingness of her previous utterance. She did not appear to be playing games. Her straightforwardness and sincere belief in what she was saying stunned the others into silence.
As her long speech drew to a close she stood up, approached Petruchio and placed her hand on the ground for him to step on. This was done quietly and without any playful winks or nods to indicate that it was part of a game cooked up by the couple as a prank at the others’ expense.
Instead of proudly accepting her submissive gesture, Petruchio got on his knees in front of Kate and bowed his head into her lap. The pair rose and went off hand in hand upstage. As Petruchio proudly stated that the others were “sped”, he and Kate began undressing before getting under the stage bed sheet to consummate their union.
By showing us a Katherine who could be read as both defeated by Petruchio and Petruchio’s equal, the production refused to fit neatly into either of the two simplistic ways of staging the core relationship between tamer and tamed.
Its sophistication meant that we were never sure what was actually happening between the couple and were left asking questions about the very nature of what we had seen.
The production managed to dramatise our ambivalent interpretations of the play to create something of lasting, thought-provoking worth.
For example, why did Katherine pause before launching into her final speech? What did that pause tell us about her belief in the words she eventually uttered?
Was Petruchio’s pause when challenged by Kate on their return to Padua simply him catching his breath, or a moment in which his belief in his innate male superiority faltered, paving the way for his more respectful treatment of Kate when she eventually offered him her foot to tread on?
The contradictions and ambiguities of the production posed the same difficulties we meet in trying to understand real people, which was more rewarding than simply presenting us with characters running along a single, predictable track.