The defanging of the shrew

The Taming of the Shrew, The Globe, 27 June 2012

The most disturbing thing about this production of Shrew was that there was nothing remotely disturbing about it.

At the end the audience willingly cheered the happy couple’s kiss after Katharina’s apparent act of self-abasement: somehow the problematic nature of the play had been completely obliterated.

In retrospect it was possible to determine that this extraordinary effect had been deliberately and skilfully achieved by the most subtle of means.

And it was so much more than just another instance of the familiar staging that has Kate discover that humouring Petruchio can be fun.

The process began right at the start.

The pre-performance warm-up music from the Globe band was disrupted by a loutish figure at the back of the yard, St George flags painted on each cheek, shouting and gesticulating as he made his way forward and stumbled up the steps onto the stage.

He was immediately surrounded by theatre staff who tried to push him back and even the stage manager came out from the tiring house to try and stop him.

But he proceeded to urinate against the stage right pillar, turning towards the audience in mid-flow so that the Globe boards and a groundling near the stage front were comprehensively soaked.

Tired and emotional, the bedraggled football fan collapsed and was attended by a medic, prompting the stage manager to announce the cancellation of the performance.

For an encore, the man sat up and vomited.

Needless to say, all this (including the wet fake groundling) was part of the performance and our first glimpse of Christopher Sly (Simon Paisley Day).

Some of the play’s cast, half changed into costume and still wearing their ID badges, found Sly and planned to trick him into thinking he was a gentleman.

This integral part of the plot was made to seem an ad hoc invention of the actors and practised on a random audience member. The worlds outside and inside the play were seamlessly connected.

Sly was taken away to be dressed in fine clothes and the youngest of the actors ordered to dress as a woman and pretend to be his wife.

Sly was brought out in a chair and awoke in his new clothes still drunk and called for small ale. He shouted about being Christopher Sly of Bermondsey who drank at The Anchor on Park Street, which is real pub in a real street just around the corner from the Globe.

He was offered fine food and drink and the others held up paintings. One of these was an empty frame in which one of the huntsmen tried to look like its subject, the mythological figure of Daphne.

When the Page returned as his wife, Sly started to grope him. The frustration caused by the rebuttal of his advances led him to comment “Ay, it stands…”.

Tucked away at the end of the play’s induction came the first element in the production’s subliminal engineering of the audience’s reaction.

The messenger told the duped Sly that his players had come to perform a play for him. Instead of the text’s “Is not a comonty a Christmas gambol or a tumbling-trick?” addressed back to the messenger, this Sly turned to face the audience and asked “Is there a fool in it?”

His precise tone of voice in phrasing this question indicated that he already knew the answer. Simon Paisley Day, soon to change from Sly into Petruchio, had been given an invented line whose sole purpose was to seed the idea that the main play we were about to see was the story of a fool: name Petruchio.

Though interestingly, Simon Paisley Day was only credited as Petruchio. As far as this production was concerned, Sly did not exist as a separate character: Sly was Petruchio.

Sly and his “wife” walked down the slope at the front of the stage and joined the groundlings at the stage left front of the yard.

Craic

In the first scene of the play proper we were introduced to Lucentio (Joseph Timms) and Irish-accented servant Tranio (Jamie Beamish) (1.1). As Paduan scholars sat in their black outfits by the stage left pillar, Tranio counselled his master not to work too hard. This advice to enjoy the craic was apt coming from an Irish character.

Seeing Baptista’s group enter, they retreated to the Globe balcony and observed him reminding Bianca’s suitors that she could not be married before Kate had found a husband.

The dotard Gremio (Michael Bertenshaw) walked with the aid of a stick and almost fell into yard. This comic turn paved the way for the entry of Kate (Samantha Spiro) who growled and waved her fists in fury at her tormentors.

When Hortensio (Rick Warden) contradicted her she snarled and grabbed him by the hair. Interestingly, Kate’s hair was black and had a Medusa-like quality to it that suited her character’s female rage. By contrast Bianca (Sarah MacRae) was blonde, tall and pretty.

Having heard Baptista (Pip Donaghy) ask whether any of Bianca’s suitors could supply her with tutors, the others exited through the centre doors. Kate was shut out and cried “I may go too, may I not?” She banged on the door, ran at it and then knocked both leaves to the ground before walking over them.

This was an initial dose of cartoonish unreality that served to distance us from Kate as a real person: crucial to making her final surrender palatable.

Gremio said “Farewell” to Hortensio who went to leave, but he returned when he overheard Gremio talk of finding “a fit man to teach her”. Not wanting to be outmanoeuvred, Hortensio picked up the idea and said he would do the same. They agreed among themselves to get a husband for Kate and thereby release Bianca.

The love-struck Lucentio received a reality check from Tranio, who announced with great comic timing that his master’s plan to woo Bianca in the guise of a schoolmaster was “Not possible”.

Hitting on the idea of swapping identities so that Tranio could woo her in loco Lucentio, the pair got almost fully undressed onstage to change clothes. Tranio shifted out of his Irish accent when pretending to be Lucentio. This great device was used throughout the play, and also meant that at moments of great stress Tranio would slip back into Irish.

At the end of the scene, Sly and his wife down in the yard commented on the play and left through the piazza doors. After a quick change, Simon Paisley Day returned as Petruchio (1.2).

Petruchio was tall and middle-aged. Yet despite being possessed of a confident manner, he was by no means a ladies’ man. There was a hint of comedy behind his amorous pretensions and obvious neediness. This characterisation added to the sense that he was not a serious threat to Kate.

Petruchio’s servant Grumio (Pearce Quigley) was lugubrious and sarcastic. This sarcasm was particularly pointed and served to undermine Petruchio further in the eyes of the audience. The production subliminally suggested that Petruchio was a fool, and Grumio’s persistent needling of his master was a major component in this.

This could be seen when Grumio cottoned on to the actual meaning of Petruchio’s request “Knock me here soundly”. The proverbial light bulb went on, whereupon Grumio repeated “Knock at the gate!” as if suddenly discerning the sense in the utterance of a child or an imbecile.

Given Petruchio’s advancing years, Grumio guffawed when his master referred to himself as one of the “young men”.

On each of the three occasions that Petruchio referred to the death of his father, Grumio loudly kicked a bucket, apologising for the disturbance immediately afterwards.

Petruchio’s principal ambition was to find a wife and he descended the slope to point at a female groundling as if asking her to be his bride.

He was taken aback at Hortensio’s promise that he had a rich wife lined up for him. Hortensio began to praise Kate’s good features, but when he got to “Her only fault” he paused and the audience began jeering with laughter. Hortensio looked at us jokingly.

Bravado

They were joined by Gremio and Lucentio disguised as a scholar pretending to be acting for Gremio. Petruchio attempted to reassure Gremio that he would be able to marry Kate and free up Bianca for him, saying that Kate’s scolding would not intimidate an experienced soldier such as himself. But this sounded like bravado. His pretensions to bravery had been comically undercut by his age and Grumio’s mockery.

All was not well when we saw the Minola sisters for the second time. Bianca had been blindfolded and tied up by Kate, who now took down the blindfold demanding that her sister tell which of her suitors she liked best (2.1). Kate was very rough and violent towards Bianca, at one point headbutting her. This made Kate very unsympathetic.

The sisters ended up fighting. But when Baptista arrived, Bianca fell to the ground crying and immediately got her father’s sympathy. Kate stormed off in disgust at this gross unfairness.

The suitors entered with their gifts of books and a lute. Baptista was understandably thrown by Petruchio’s description of Kate as “fair and virtuous”. When presenting Hortensio, Petruchio paused before “mathematics”, indicating that this was a spur of the moment addition to his skills. Gremio, presenting Lucentio/Cambio, similarly paused before “mathematics” as if matching Petruchio’s bid.

As Petruchio and Baptista discussed marriage arrangements, shouting and banging was heard off stage. Hortensio returned with his glasses askew and shortly afterwards a lute with a hole through it was thrown out from the offstage classroom.

Petruchio was left alone and Kate sent to meet him. She looked at her new suitor as if he were mad. This was perhaps justified by the way Petruchio proceeded to move around her as he began his paean of praise to her.

The couple traded barbed insults with Petruchio acting out some of the bawdy wordplay to make its meaning obvious.

He knelt when asking her to sit on him and assumed a dominant sexual position when saying “I will not burden thee”. He then faced Kate and spread his legs when he described her as “light”.

Describing herself as “heavy as my weight should be”, Kate placed her foot on his crotch as if taking back control of the female part that he had mocked.

Despite her barbs, Kate was very impressed with his wit; particularly so in her reaction to his “tongue in tail” joke.

She struck at him but he held her, warning that he would cuff her if she struck again. This she did. He caught her hand, but she wrestled him to the ground, pinning him saying “So you may lose your arms”.

This latter remark was not wit from a physically overpowered woman, but a threat against Petruchio’s arms pinned to the ground. This was important in establishing them as near equals and showing that Petruchio’s physical dominance was not unquestioned.

Petruchio reversed like a crab when that creature was referred to. The audience laughed when Petruchio said “I am too young for you”. We had already got into the habit of finding his claims to youth and vigour comical.

The pair ended up sprawled on the ground as Petruchio spoke of making her a “Kate conformable”. Baptista and the others saw this apparently cosy scene from a distance, lending credence to Petruchio’s subsequent claim that Kate had been won and was only curst for appearances.

Petruchio grasped Kate’s hand and she struggled to get free. Baptista took hold of them both to seal the arrangement, at which Kate could only look on aghast.

After Petruchio and Kate had left, Baptista auctioned off Bianca between Tranio/Lucentio and Gremio. The audience expressed its sympathy for the defeated Gremio with ‘awws’.

The scene with Bianca’s Latin lesson (3.1) had Bianca take Lucentio down onto the slope to prevent Hortensio overhearing them. She concluded by telling him to “despair not”.

Marriage

On the day of her marriage, Kate stood around in her white wedding dress fuming that Petruchio had not come (3.2). The audience cheered Biondello (Tom Godwin) at the end of his exhaustive speech describing the dishevelled appearance of Petruchio and his sickly horse.

When he finally arrived, Petruchio wore a jerkin with pantaloons, one boot top folded down, a stuffed codpiece and had a copper saucepan on his head. A carrot was just visible, wedged inside the pan next to his head. Grumio held a bit in his mouth and used coconuts to make a clopping noise like a horse.

Petruchio eventually stripped off his outer clothes so that he was dressed only in a pouch codpiece and boots. This looked ridiculous and further undermined his credibility.

Grumio tried to speak but the bit meant he could only make a gargling sound. Petruchio took the carrot from the saucepan and stuck it in Grumio’s mouth.

In a final humiliating act, Petruchio turned and walked away to reveal his bare behind. Truly this play did have a fool in it.

Forgetting his assumed role for an instant, Tranio switched between Irish and English accents mid-speech when Gremio returned with his description of the riotous wedding.

Once the wedding party had returned, Kate asserted her independence by refusing to leave with her new husband. Petruchio’s response was simple: he packed her onto Grumio’s back and they set off with Grumio bearing her like a horse.

Bianca said that her sister was “madly mated”, inspiring Gremio to make an additional joke by saying that Petruchio was “Kated”, but the witticism fell flat.

After the interval, antlers were hung from the Globe balcony to represent the interior of Petruchio’s house (4.1). A sky blue curtain across the upper gallery marked the bedroom.

A large dining table was set out and the servants gathered to sing the bawdy song Cuckoo’s Nest. After this lusty introduction to the second half, Grumio came clopping in and began disciplining the staff (including Christopher Keegan as Nathaniel).

Grumio used cutlery and plates to tell story of their disastrous journey. Kate was represented by a ladle, Petruchio by a spoon. Metal plates were bashed together to indicate how Grumio had been struck. Curtis (Tom Anderson) picked up the spoon standing for Petruchio when describing his master as the real shrew.

Grumio’s references to his horse were modified to “my real horse”, a necessary distinction as he was acting like one. This slight playfulness with reality formed part of overall atmosphere of the production.

Petruchio and Kate arrived at the end of their journey, he with his jacket on and she in a mired white dress, still looking confused.

There was something slightly Basil Fawlty about Petruchio ordering his servants around. Lots of nice food was laid out on the table. Kate was sat at the stage left side almost ready to tuck in, when Petruchio threw away a bowl of water, blaming the servant that had brought it.

Kate ended up at other end of the table just as Petruchio declared that the food was burnt and set about throwing it all to the ground before taking a perplexed Kate away.

They went upstairs to his bedchamber behind the hanging. We heard Kate screaming “Yes, yes, yes” suggesting that the marriage was being consumated.

Curtis stood at the gap in the curtain and reported that Petruchio was making “a sermon of continency to her”, a point immediately underlined when Petruchio could be heard contradicting her saying “No”.

Petruchio spoke about his “reign” over Kate from the slope in a speech full of falconry terms.

Balcony

Tranio brought Hortensio to show him Lucentio and Bianca kissing up on the balcony, now decorated with a different curtain to represent the house in Padua (4.2).

Hortensio despaired, removed his beard disguise and gave up on his pursuit of Bianca. The others then enlisted the Pedant (Patrick Driver) to stand in for Vincentio.

Back at Petruchio’s house, Grumio refused to give grapes to Kate, throwing them instead into the yard where they were caught by a groundling (4.3).

When she begged for food, another cartoonish piece of humour occurred (at least in this preview: the staging was changed for the main run).

Grumio set out a table and chair and sat Kate down before handing her a menu. He stood like a waiter ready to take her order. Each delicacy with which he tempted her was itemised as if on the menu. To complete the impression, Grumio’s accent changed into that of a posh foodie waiter. Kate beat him for his insolence.

Petruchio brought a fine roast chicken, but would not let Kate have it until she said thanks. She complied, saying “I thank you, sir” through gritted teeth as if she was forcing the words out against her will. But Kate was insufficiently sincere and all the chicken went to Hortensio, obliging her to watch him eat it.

Kate’s humiliation continued when Petruchio took the elegant cap brought the Tailor (David Beames) from her head and stood on it. Kate tried to pull the cap from under his feet. The gown was modelled comically by Grumio. Petruchio pulled off one of its sleeves and looked through it comparing it to a demi-cannon.

Because Grumio was actually wearing the gown himself, the joke he made about taking up his mistress’ gown for his master’s use suddenly acquired a new comic angle.

Petruchio dragged Kate away still in her tattered clothes. His speech about jays and larks, adders and eels sounded ridiculous. She looked at him as if he were insane.

In a foreshadowing of their argument on the road back to Padua, Kate contradicted Petruchio’s opinion about the time of day. He looked exasperated, saying she was “still crossing it”.

The fake Vincentio presented himself to Baptista and slowly and deliberately recited his prepared speech (4.4). The others stood behind Baptista and encouraged their stooge, prompting him using mime when he forgot his lines. But the subterfuge worked and the marriage of Lucentio and Bianca was arranged.

Petruchio and Kate made their way from the yard up onto the stage with an entire party of servants (4.5). Wearied by the long journey to Padua they were attempting to raise their flagging spirits by singing a comic song and expected Kate to complete each line with the word “pig”. She did so twice but then passed out, spread-eagled on the ground making no reply.

Still disobedient to Petruchio’s demands, Kate refused to say that the sun was the moon. This caused the servants to get annoyed at her intransigence. They were tired from carrying the luggage for the pair and any delay prolonged their discomfort.

Here again the production skilfully drew the audience into seeing Kate’s actions as reasonable and not the result of Petruchio’s sadism.

Firstly, the song game created a playful atmosphere. Secondly and crucially, the moans from the servants at her refusal to play the game and agree with Petruchio meant that her eventual surrender could be seen as much as kindness to them as it was obedience to her husband.

He contradicted her once again, and her line “What you will have it named… And so it shall be so for Katharina” was accompanied by a sincere look of acquiescence. Seeing that she had been won, he gazed at her lovingly and held her hand.

Satisfied with her response, he yelled “Well, forward, forward!” ordering the party to move on, both physically on their journey and also to suggest the onward progress of their marriage.

The pair came across the real Vincentio (David Beames again). Kate willingly collaborated with Petruchio’s joke at the old man’s expense, referring to him as a maid at Petruchio’s suggestion and then correcting herself when Petruchio backtracked. This was all a playful game between a loving couple rather than further bullying.

Picking up on the good-natured wit of their game, Vincentio himself played along by referring to Kate as “sir” and Petruchio as “my merry mistress” as if getting in the spirit of things.

Rebuffed

The large confluence of characters outside Lucentio’s house gave rise to the comic sequence in which the real Vincentio was rebuffed by the fake Vincentio on the balcony (5.1). Petruchio and Kate went off to watch the ensuing chaos from the yard.

Having discovered his servant’s deception, Vincentio wrestled with Tranio as they both rolled a short way down the slope at the stage front.

Further disorder was prevented when Lucentio explained what had happened. When Gremio realised his hopes of marrying Bianca had been dashed there were more “awws” of commiseration for him from the audience. But Vincentio and Baptista, although relieved, were still annoyed at the deception.

Witnessing her father’s distress, Bianca realised that this clever scheme was flawed and had a look of thunder on her face. Lucentio asked her not to look pale, an instruction that prompted her to slap Lucentio on the face.

This set her up nicely as a froward wife in the final scene. Her character has an interesting trajectory: she must initially seem a good girl compared with Kate, but by the end of the play she has to be a bad match for one of the sped husbands. The slap here was a neat, clearly noticeable way of underlining that transition.

Kate seemed sheepish when Petruchio wanted her to kiss him in the street. But when he asked if she was ashamed of him, his scolding was clearly jocular and half-hearted, as if only returning to previous form for old-times’ sake.

They kissed, but only after Petruchio gestured at Grumio to turn and look the other way. This implied that Petruchio possessed some of Kate’s sensitivity about public kissing, again emphasising their similarity and the health of their relationship.

But Grumio had the last laugh by getting out a mirror, breathing on it to polish it, and then positioning it to observe the kiss.

This comic disobedience of Petruchio’s request was another instance in which his authority was undermined, making him once again into the butt of the joke.

Lucentio’s house was prepared for the feast in the final scene (5.2). Candles were lit in chandeliers which were hoisted above the stage. An onstage servant pretended to pull the rope and tie it up, while the offstage technicians did the actually lifting.

Chairs were placed and rugs set out to allow Petruchio to sit stage left with Kate on the ground next to him, rather like a “household Kate”.

When the Widow (Helen Weir) implied that Petruchio had married a shrew, thereby warping his view of other marriages, Petruchio and Kate combined to rebuff her.

The frowardness of the Widow and Bianca was emphasised by way they both spoke from centre stage in a powerful position. Petruchio wagered the others that Kate was a better wife than those two, and soon a table was burdened with large amounts of gold coin as stakes were placed.

The women went to the balcony. Biondello was dispatched to fetch them in turn, and reported back their various excuses. To everyone’s surprise (except Petruchio’s) Kate came when called and appeared on the balcony.

Kate escorted the other two to the main stage and her final speech was delivered from the stage front slope, addressing the women in the yard.

Having delivered her homily on submissiveness with complete sincerity, she went back up the slope and put her hand on the ground.

Petruchio knelt before her and held her hand instead of treading on it, a gesture which led into a final kiss. The performance ended on Petruchio’s triumphant claim that the other husbands were “sped”.

Conclusions

Why had Kate abased herself? In the absence of any psychological realism, the production did not concern itself with providing an answer to that question.

Instead of grappling with ways to deal with such problems or to make the play’s difficult subject matter palatable, the production chose instead to render the play into a harmless comedy stripped of anything that might make it perplexing.

That this was possible was fascinating in itself. Dissecting the subtleties of its technique proved to be the icing on the cake.

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