It is unlikely that a modern audience will ever see The Taming Of The Shrew as anything other than as deeply political; it is impossible to do it now without a political message. Consequently, it would be an interesting, and brave, bit of direction to set it in contemporary Saudi Arabia, or perhaps Dewsbury. But one suspects we will have to wait a long time for that. In an age of identity politics, one identity always trumps another.
One of the many conceits of this age is that we imagine characters from the past, currently venerated for their humanity and moral wisdom, are the sort of people we’d get on well with. Shakespeare is one of the holy pantheon whose essential beauty would reach across the centuries, it is supposed. He’d read The Guardian and probably vote Remain. We’d understand how he had to leave the provinces where everyone is so narrow-minded and hates Catholics. In short, he’d fit in very well in the bar of the National Theatre.
It is therefore a painful shock when we find Shakespeare saying things that are now deemed very unpleasant. Nothing he says is more unpleasant to modern ears than The Taming of the Shrew. One doesn’t have to be a militant feminist to find it a very troubling play, and one we perhaps would prefer he hadn’t written.
There has to be a “good reason” to stage it now”, and (it is) important to “challenge the ideas that Shakespeare is offering us,” says director Catherine Byrne, and it is to Emma Rice’s credit that she wanted to do such a controversial play so early in her tenure as the new artistic director.
This production is set in Ireland of 1916 at the time of the Easter Rebellion, when, apparently, women took a leading role in the revolt and were promised equal citizenship in a united Ireland – a promise which the Irish Free State then promptly forgot.
Whatever the historical basis for these claims, there’s absolutely no hint of this precise context in the Globe’s production. It could be any date in Ireland of the late 19th or early 20th century. We’re in Sean O’Casey’s Ireland, the Ireland ruled by “fear of priests with empty plates/(By) guilt and weeping effigies.”
This works very well. This is an era and a country well suited to the gender politics of The Taming of the Shrew. Outwardly, all froth and fun, inwardly very dark and abusive, where entrenched privilege by sex or by status or both allows all manner of cruelty without redress.
The darkness is never very far away in this production. Rather than Christopher Sly’s drunken prelude, we have Katherine, the excellent Aoife Duffin, growling a ballad which claims a woman’s right to be recognised as an equal. The song, written by Morna Regan, is renewed at the end of the first half, after her marriage, and at the end, by which time the words have to be wrenched from Katherine’s body and emerge only in an aching snarl. Hers is a soul in torment. But these, gratifyingly, are the only major additions to the text. The director feels no need to rewrite Shakespeare to make it more ‘accessible’.
Even during the jollier first half, there are hints of the inequity that lies at the heart of this society. Bianca’s suitor Hortensio is, like Gremio, a very middle aged man seeking the hand of a young woman, not some handsome young buck. In a lovely directorial touch, Hortensio’s widow, whom he runs off to marry at the end, is a silent presence throughout the play, rolling her eyes at the idiocies of these man and smoking fiercely in the corner.
Lest we think it is all one-way traffic, the selfishness of men always juxtaposed against the nobility of women, the townswomen gladly and gaily enmesh Katherine before her wedding in ropes like a cow about to be branded. They participate fully in the taming.
The darkness that lurked around the corner in the first half becomes all-consuming in the second. The gay Irish folk tunes of the first half give way to a lone, mournful violinist as Petruchio breaks Katherine’s will to resist by lack of food and sleep. Her wedding dress becomes torn and merely the hoops remain, exposing her muddied legs, while whatever sleep she has is grabbed in an iron bedframe on rubble.
The final speech of self-abasement starts in a flat monotone of abject surrender, but then changes and builds to a ferocious ironic denunciation of the society in which finds herself. The men shift around uncomfortably and look at their shoes. Petruchio looks about with a shamed ‘What have I done?’ expression but it’s clear he is not to blame: it’s the mores of the society that has made them both. It’s a thrilling moment on stage.
One feels that these two kids can still work it out, and there is a delicious foreshadowing of their possible future lives when, on the way to her father’s house there is an unexpected, hesitant but gloriously sexy kiss.
Aoife Duffin is great as Katherine. She’s a red-headed, waifish firebrand, driven literally mad by her inability to conform. We first meet her scratching her backside, flashing her panties to her suitors and then spitting in Hortensio’s face – an act still shocking enough in 2016 to raise a startled sigh from the Globe audience and in 1916 might have earned the offender a sojourn in the loony bin.
It’s a performance of raw passion and fierce intelligence, and is even more impressive as Dufin took over the part at short notice from Kathy Rose O’Brien after the latter was injured.
Opposite her is Edward MacLiam’s dynamic and vital Petruchio. To make this part sympathetic is one of the biggest asks in the Shakespearian canon, yet for the most part MacLiam brings it off.
So often the part of Bianca is the most boring in the play, a tedious goody two-shoes and her daddy’s favourite, so that one can quite see how she gets right up Katherine’s nose. Yet Genevieve Hulme-Bulman gives the part a sly intelligence: here is the woman that is prepared to work the system to her own advantage in a way that her elder sister won’t or can’t. Far from repressed, she happily straddles Lucentio on the quiet in the hayloft twice in rapid succession.
There is plenty of knockabout fun in the first half, particularly from Molly Logan (Biondello) and Imogen Doel (Tranio), both characters cast against gender. Caileidh music underpins that action and all is done with infectious zest and energy.
This can’t, however, totally rescue these scenes of multiple disguise and mistaken identities from some confusion and tedium; nor, moreover, is jollity meant to be the dominant note of the evening. The audience leaves troubled and discomforted, and that is the triumph of this production.
It is unlikely that a modern audience will ever see this play as any other than as deeply political; it is impossible to do it without a political message. Consequently, it would be an interesting, and brave, bit of direction to set it Taming of the Shrew in contemporary Saudi Arabia, or perhaps Dewsbury. But one suspects we will have to wait a long time for that. In an age of identity politics, one identity always trumps another.