Highly original practices – an all-female Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew, The Globe, 13 June 2013

A female Petruchio: this had to be seen. A female Kate responding to the impositions of a female Petruchio was equally required viewing.

Thanks to the Globe’s original practices productions and the likes of Propeller, all-male Shakespeare is quite common. So what happens when the chromosomes are on the other foot?

The all-female cast of the Globe’s touring production of Shrew were incredibly jolly as they stood before the shabby red and white striped marquee, like an oversized roadworks tent and welcomed the audience with a hearty hello.

Picking up their instruments, they sang “Jack Monroe”, a ballad about a woman who disguises herself as man to follow her lover to war. This tale of male/female confusion provided an apt warm-up to the main event.

Christopher Sly (Kate Lamb) reeled around drunk and gave wide-eyed quizzical looks when being fooled by the servants of the excellent, jolly Lord (Kathryn Hunt), reminiscent of countrywoman Clarissa Dickson Wright as she flexed her riding crop.

Poor Sly’s rags were swapped for good clothes and he was surrounded by fawning, attentive servants. When introduced to his “wife”, he keenly unbuttoned his trousers and joked that “it stands”.

This was the first point in the production in which gender confusion took hold.

The Induction’s knockabout comedy turned serious when the servant disguised as Sly’s supposed spouse said “I am your wife in all obedience” and offered her hand for him to tread on, echoing the finale of play.

Sly was doubled with Kate, so that it was possible to read this moment as Kate’s introduction to the idea of absolute female obedience.

The play proper began when the flaps of the tent were folded back to reveal Tranio (Remy Beasley) and Lucentio (Becci Gemmell) in beige Victorian outfits.

Great fun was had with the subsidiary characters: the bespectacled Hortensio (Nicola Sangster), Gremio (Joy Richardson) in his cricket whites and a great Tranio who really relished the subterfuge of his disguise.

But Petruchio (Leah Whitaker) and Kate (Kate Lamb again) rightly became the focus of interest.

Stuffing a veil in her sister Bianca’s (Olivia Morgan) mouth to torment her was a hint that Kate was wary of her life being arranged for her. But she was not above tying her sister between two poles in order to make her admit which of her suitors she preferred.

What to make then of Petruchio, who made a dynamic entrance in boots, a tan fur-trimmed coat and flying helmet, as if recently alighted from piloting his own aircraft?

We were regularly reminded of Petruchio’s forcefulness by a running gag in which anyone who shook his hand came away shaking their own hand in pain. Leah Whitaker also had a nice line in mannish stances that conveyed Petruchio’s confident presence without descending into caricature.

Petruchio dismissed the idea that Kate would be a fearsome scold. As the female actor confidently announced “And do you tell me of a woman’s tongue” many intriguing layers of performance were created, equivalent to those arising from OP productions where such collisions between role and actor are woven into the fabric of the play.

At their first meeting, Kate looked wary as she and Petruchio traded barbs from opposite ends of the stage. Kate referred to him disparagingly as “a joint-stool” giving Petruchio the opportunity to make his first overtly sexual remark “Thou hast hit it. Come, sit on me”.

The two had moved closer together by the time that Petruchio, still clear and determined, joked about having his tongue in her tail.

But the joking turned to tension when Kate cuffed Petruchio and he slowly explained that he would strike her back if she did so again.

Petruchio insisted that he had her father’s consent to marry her and that all was arranged. As he declared “Will you, nill you, I will marry you” Kate placed her hand on his cheek in a moment of genuine tenderness. The implication was that Kate actually liked Petruchio despite his rough edges.

Her father Baptista (Kathryn Hunt) witnessed this brief glimpse of her softer side, and perhaps it was her wounded pride that provoked her to denounce Petruchio as “one half lunatic”. But when her suitor offered “kiss me, Kate, we will be married o’Sunday” she willingly consented to Petruchio’s embrace and then looked coyly at the audience as if happy with the arrangement.

On the day of her wedding Kate and company sang a song while they waited for the groom. Kate looked lovely in her cream wedding dress clutching a bouquet. Baptista led her up the aisle and there they waited.

When Petruchio finally arrived there was something rather understated, almost orderly about his madcap wedding outfit. He wore a light blue suit with a ruff, and carried an air horn and red party balloons. Soft drink cans on strings dragged behind him like he was a honeymoon car.

Kate still wilfully resisted Petruchio when they had returned from the church, insisting that she would stay for dinner and not depart with him immediately.

Petruchio responded with a controlled explosion of patriarchal anger, launching into a forceful defence of his property rights over his goods, chattels and wife.

On one level Petruchio was completely convincing. The character lives within the text. So when an actor, even a female one, spoke these lines, then that actor became Petruchio.

But at the same time, these words were deprived of bite by being spoken by a 21st century woman. It was obvious that the individual female actor giving voice to these sentiments could not possibly do so sincerely.

Spoken by a young woman, Petruchio’s diatribe became not so much the exposition of the character’s mindset, but its deconstruction. Tellingly, the gender of the actor was important in this respect, because a male actor could deliver these lines more credibly.

But the aforesaid did nothing to detract from the vehemence of Petruchio’s utterances. His “I’ll bring mine action on the proudest he that stops my way in Padua” was a clear threat of violence to anyone that might obstruct him.

Offering Kate a protective “I’ll buckler thee against a million” he grabbed hold of her and escorted her away.

When the couple appeared in the second half at their married home, Petruchio’s blue suit was still clean but both Kate and her lovely dress were smeared with dirt.

Dinner was served and the pair were presented by the serving staff with burgers in boxes. Petruchio’s response “What’s this? Horse?” (not mutton) was a delightful topical joke about recent food scandals, which failed to raise a laugh. More hilarity resulted, unfortunately, from the burgers being thrown away, as one rolled gracefully off the stage into yard.

Petruchio began his “reign”, and no one contradicted him with a better method.

Petruchio brought Kate a Peperami, which he held above her out of her reach until she said thank you, after which she got to nibble on it.

Kate was denied the cap, here a small red fascinator, and the dress brought by the Tailor. Petruchio also lost his temper with the Essex girl tailor, who shrieked in panic when faced with his aggression.

Instigating a new phase in Kate’s taming, Petruchio contradicted his wife’s truthful assertion that it was 2pm and that consequently they would not arrive in Padua until the evening. He insisted that the time was his to determine.

Once on the way to Padua, Kate was traumatised by Petruchio’s intimidating switches between describing the bright object in the sky at one moment as the sun, at the next the moon.

They met the real Vincentio (Joy Richardson again), whom Petruchio described as a “gentlewoman”. Kate cast him a scornful look and seemed to wonder whether all this was just a silly game.

She humoured Petruchio and addressed Vincentio as a woman, but was once more corrected as Petruchio declared that Vincentio was a man. Seeing that facts could change upon a whim, Kate excused her error, but paused waiting for Petruchio’s corrective intervention, saying her eyes “have been so bedazzled with the … sun”.

Once in Padua, the real Vincentio was rightfully acknowledged.

After the unveiling of Lucentio’s surreptitious marriage to Bianca and the resolution of many of the play’s plot strands, Petruchio asked Kate for a kiss. In keeping with the conciliatory mood established by the other characters, he presented Kate with the red fascinator that he had previously obliged her to reject.

This kind gesture melted her resistance sufficiently for them to kiss. It also indicated a softening on Petruchio’s part that would be developed in the final scene.

At the start of the final banquet scene, Petruchio seemed pleasantly surprised as Kate’s spirited defence of him during the argument with the Widow.

When the men laid wagers as to whether their wives would be obedient to command, not only did Kate come when beckoned but she also threw her cap on the ground when ordered.

Kate’s big speech in which she pleaded with the other women not to be “like a fountain troubled” was the pay-off to which the entire production had been building.

Something very strange happened at this culminating moment.

Her willingness to descend into this degree of abject submission evoked pity and compassion because it was obvious that only someone under severe duress could possibly give voice to such sentiments.

The whole female cast, despite some being in male roles, seemed to stand behind her as fellow women, supporting her and making her implicit plea their own.

Instead of appearing isolated and downtrodden, Kate appeared to speak on behalf of the entire cast, inviting the audience to respond emotionally to the patent injustice of her subjugation.

So although she spoke of her eager obedience, the overall effect was a savage critique of her position and a profound questioning of the mindset that had made it possible.

At the end of this, Kate presented her hand for Petruchio to stand on. But he, perhaps responding as the production intended, seemed highly embarrassed by the abjectness of Kate’s surrender, and gestured at her to stand up before kissing her.

It was possible to detect in this kiss a hint of an apology.

Conclusions

The production looked superficially like a seaside show, but concealed an intricate and fascinating examination of the ideas that fuel debate about this controversial play.

In particular, is it possible for women to portray Petruchio’s attitudes without undermining them?

The production’s rendering of the final scene indicated that our natural disgust at the end product of the taming process was shared even by Petruchio himself.

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