The Taming of the Shrew, The Globe, 26 May 2012
At the end of his Richard III, Zhang Dongyu had kissed the Globe stage, thereby conferring on its boards the status of Shakespeare’s spiritual home.
Before the start of this Urdu production, actor Salman Shahid gave an entire speech in English about the ‘sacred ground’ of the Globe stage and the great honour of performing there.
It will be interesting to see whether these tributes form the start of a trend that positions the Globe as the centre of the Shakespearean world.
The performance itself began as the entire cast milled around performing their characters in isolation before freezing in fixed positions. They then danced around as Ravi (Maria Khan), the production’s narrator and rough equivalent of Christopher Sly, explained the background to the story.
Ravi was soon at work as a background figure. When we first saw him, Lucentio (Umer Naru) was mildly abusive of his servant Tranio (Ahmed Ali), and to underline his lack of charity also pointedly ignored Ravi, who sat nearby holding out her hand in the guise of a beggar.
After being introduced to Baptista (Salman Shahid), Hortensio (Osman Khalid Butt) and flatulent old man Gremio (Mukkarum Kaleem), it was time for our first glimpse of Karina (Nadia Jamil). She entered eating peanuts from a bag, throwing and spitting them at all and sundry much in the same way she spat out her characteristic invective.
Her sister Bina (Karen David), on the other hand, was a good girl. Or so it seemed at first.
Lucentio watched all this from the stage right pillar and once the group had departed, Tranio had to slap him awake from his Bina-induced reverie.
The ever-present Ravi appeared just in time for Lucentio and Tranio to use her as a clothes horse as they exchanged garments to effect Tranio’s disguise. Biondello (Syed Abbas Hussain) was confused by the swap.
The joke based around Petruchio’s “knock me here soundly” was translated as a misunderstanding involving a knife. The man himself (Omair Rana) was very rough with his servant Grumio (Hamza Kamal), as if to underline the difference between him and Lucentio.
He greeted Hortensio by embracing him and spinning him round so fast that his friend’s legs left the ground; more evidence of his vigour and ebullience. The pair both had a moment of inspiration when hitting on the plan to get Petruchio to woo Karina in order to clear Hortensio’s path to Bina.
Karina’s attempt to fly a kite was ruined when Bina sneaked up on her and broke it.
But Bina knew how to deal with Karina’s quite justifyied anger at this vandalism: she went crying to daddy who instinctively took Bina’s side against her ‘bad’ sibling.
This sequence was an interesting reversal of the text’s sisterly spat in which the elder torments the younger.
The staging made Bina look like a very nasty piece of work and by extension increased our sympathy for the put-upon Karina. So when Karina subsequently broke a guitar over Hortensio’s head, it was possible to interpret this as justified frustration rather than congenital bad temper.
Her volatile temperament made Petruchio love Karina even more. His request to be left alone with her was granted and their relationship was set in motion.
Karina entered flying an (invisible) kite up in the air, and Petruchio visibly was delighted with her.
The attraction was mutual. At first sight of her suitor, Karina walked round behind him, screwed up her face, clenched her fists and silently mouthed a cry of hormonally-charged appreciation.
Continuing her circular walk, she moved in front of Petruchio once again and immediately readopted her sour expression.
Karina’s blatantly obvious attraction to Petruchio firmly established the basis for their future complicity, setting the play on a trajectory towards a happy ending. From this moment forward, we were witnessing a traditional comic love story rather than a meditation on sexual politics.
But, the course of true love never running smooth, Karina slapped Petruchio, kicked him in crotch and challenged him, her fists up ready to fight, as he attempted to win her over.
He held out his hand in friendship, but Karina spat on it. Unmoved, Petruchio rubbed the fluid over his face. Karina winked at him knowingly and his eyes lit up as he got the message.
Karina bit Petruchio on the shoulder just as Baptista and the others re-entered, so that he greeted them still nursing the wound. This slightly undercut his claim that the marriage was a done deal and that Karina’s shrewishness was just a front. But even though we had seen the complicit winks between them, there was a still a sense that Karina was yet to be fully won.
With Karina betrothed, a bidding war broke out between Bina’s rival suitors. In this very up-to-date translation, the stakes consisted of an air-conditioned Mercedes, a platinum credit card and other desirable goodies. But Tranio won on his master’s behalf with the possession to trump all others: a British passport entitling them to residency in the UK.
Ravi held up Tranio’s hand in victory like the MC at a boxing match. However, Tranio now needed to find someone willing to impersonate Vincentio to validate the offered dowry. He asked various members of the audience if they were willing to take on the task. He eventually found someone: Ravi emerged from the yard dressed as a merchant complete with a thin false beard, worn comically right under her nose.
Rather than Latin, Lucentio gave Bina a Persian lesson, a language in which she seemed to excel.
On the day of the wedding, Karina stood around in her dress looking miserable as Petruchio had not turned up. When he eventually did arrive, her groom was in pantaloons, hat and no shirt. The story of his madcap behaviour during the wedding was acted out behind the narrator with Petruchio actually stepping on top of the imam performing the service (played by Ravi in hat and white beard).
Karina refused to leave with Petruchio and thought she had gained the upper hand in their tussle by sitting on his back. Her husband simply stood up and carried her away through the yard, at which point the interval came.
The second half of the performance began by showing us the chaotic state of Petruchio’s household, under the stewardship of Curtis (Daud Randle). The taming process began after the couple’s arrival with Petruchio rejecting the food served by his staff and sending Karina to bed.
A brief scene showed us Tranio dissuading Hortensio from pursuing Bina by showing him Lucentio sweet-talking with her.
Back at Petruchio’s house, dawn broke to the sound of the call to prayer and we were informed that the taming process had been ongoing for fifteen days. Petruchio brought Karina cooked food but expected her to make a hand tipping gesture marking her obeisance, which she insincerely offered.
Ravi made a series of appearances starting as the tailor whose garments made for Karina were all rejected on Petruchio’s insistence. She then changed costume on stage into the fake Vincentio.
A turning point in their relationship came on the road back to Padua. After Petruchio had alternately insisted that the large object in the sky was first the moon and then the sun, Karina indicated via a complicit gesture that she understood Petruchio’s game. He beamed in approval after which they played their joke on the real Vincentio as equal partners.
The confrontation between the real and fake Vincentios produced its customary comic chaos, with Ravi shouting down from the Globe balcony at the true father of Lucentio, after which we saw another indication of the complicity between Karina and Petruchio.
Karina and Petruchio held hands in the street immediately afterwards, and they went off together smiling, yet again demonstrating the happiness of their relationship.
All productions of this play have to find a way of dealing with the final submission speech, with its unequivocal demand from the female protagonist for wives to submit to their husbands.
This production’s ingenious solution was to have Karina deliver the speech whilst engaged in a semi-dumb show with Petruchio that subverted its meaning.
The loving support that Petruchio enthusiastically showed when urging his wife to attack verbally the Widow (Hamza Kamal again) was also in evidence when Karina, unlike the other wives, returned at her husband’s bidding.
While delivering her lecture to the other wives on their duties, Karina joined with Petruchio to act out the meaning of her words. She sat and relaxed, while Petruchio wafted her to cool her down. Taking advantage of the husbandly services offered, she relished her role, which far from being submissive, actually appeared to offer her the better side of the bargain. Petruchio worked to make her content, almost taking on a subservient female role himself in the attentions he showered on her.
The very fact that they were cooperating in this display implied its prior arrangement, if not rehearsal: more evidence of their collusion and premeditated attempt at making fools of the others. The dumb show whipped past very quickly, but it did appear at one point that Karina was close to stepping on Petruchio’s hand.
The performance ended with Baptista delivering a homily about self-knowledge.
This was an incredibly thoughtful and intelligent production, whose success was all the more remarkable for the fact that Theatre Wallay was simply a label of convenience for a cast of actors who had come together for the sole purpose of staging this production.