Theatre

Queensland Theatre’s staging of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew nods to contemporary gender politics, but fails to address it in a meaningful way.

By Yen-Rong Wong.

Taming of the Shrew

Actors (from left) Claudia Ware, Anna McGahan, John McNeill and Nicholas Brown.
Credit: Brett Boardman

Damien Ryan’s production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew attempts a new take on this old play. It includes two notable gender swaps and in doing so attempts to address the controversy at the core of the text: that this is Shakespeare’s play against women, his work of renowned misogyny.

In this version for the Queensland Theatre, Tranio becomes Tania (Ellen Bailey), who is recast as the sister of Lucentio (Patrick Jhanur), an equal in both wit and cunning. Vincentio becomes Vincentia (Barbara Lowing), a former actress and Tania and Lucentio’s exuberant mother. The “widow” that Hortensio (David Soncin) eventually marries is also given a face and a name – Rosa (Wendy Mocke). Although Bailey sparkles as Tania and these changes literally allow women more of a voice in the play, their mere presence does not provide any meaningful commentary on the role of women in a patriarchal society, and seem little more than a way to add women to the text.

The play within a play of Shakespeare’s original is reimagined as a silent film set in the early 20th century, the ambience of which is cultivated by Jason Glenwright’s lighting and sound design by Tony Brumpton. Baptista Minola (John McNeill) is the director of this film, among others such as Calamity of So Long Life, Pisa, Pisa, Pisa and Better Late Than Never, posters for which are beamed onto imaginary billboards around the Bille Brown Theatre throughout the production.

Adam Gardnir’s incorporation of technology into the set also includes the playing of short, silent, black and white film across its backdrop. With videography by David Soncin, they add a new dimension to the production, and this is complemented by a series of movable ladders and steps that form the physical basis of the set.

Patriarchy is a core pillar of this play – the romantic entanglements in Shrew only occur because men are vying for the chance to marry Baptista’s younger daughter, Bianca (Claudia Ware). Bianca is introduced as the feminine ideal, complete with blonde wig, reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. But Baptista declares Bianca will not be married ahead of her sister, Katharina (Anna McGahan), who is the opposite – an aviatrix who dresses in khaki pants and breeches, drags around a heavy piece of aeroplane machinery, and disrupts her father’s production with the roar of her plane’s engines.

Katharina is at first fiery and determined, and McGahan is deft in her heartbreaking and disturbing portrayal of the incremental erosion of Katharina’s will. Jhanur and Soncin, in their separate bids to woo Bianca, are delightful while disguised as her tutors – Soncin’s footwork and flair while teaching flamenco is a highlight of his performance. Leon Cain engages in several excellent pieces of physical comedy as Biondello, Tania and Lucentio’s servant, and is equally amusing when pretending to be Vincentia.

Petruchio (Nicholas Brown) has a will equal to Katharina’s, but is prone to outbursts of anger and violence, and it is uncomfortable to see these traits play out through a person of colour. Brown, an actor of Indian heritage, is not the only person of colour in the production, and brings an eye-catching presence to the stage. But I worry about this casting choice as implicit confirmation of the “bad is black” effect, a phrase coined by researchers at New York University and the University of Illinois in 2016.

The other male characters who are played by white men are, of course, as much agents of patriarchal power as Petruchio, but they are not shown to be as violent or emotionally coercive, a jarring juxtaposition and a reminder that care should be taken in productions where the majority of the ensemble is white.

Petruchio’s treatment of Katharina is reprehensible from the outset. He plays a piece of film cut in a way that misrepresents their brief interactions, so as to convince Baptista to marry off his daughter against her will. After this plan succeeds and they are married, Petruchio subjects her to physical and emotional abuse, forcing her to kiss him and denying her food and sleep. These hallmarks of domestic abuse reach a climax when Petruchio gaslights Katharina into agreeing with his declaration that the sun is the moon. In this production, the scene is played as farce – repeated again and again and again. In one of these repetitions, Katharina simply yells an elongated “sun”, like a child throwing a tantrum, while Petruchio waits patiently for her to finish.

He is rational man, and she is the hysterical woman who needs to calm down. It is not clear why this scene, which is not drawn out in the original text, has been chosen for levity, rather than being played as one of the most disturbing moments in the play.

Ryan tries to temper the misogyny of Shrew in other ways: the men scoff at Petruchio’s “commanding” of Katharina, a signal to the audience of their disapproval; Bianca plays a skilled fighter in the film she is making; Katharina convinces Petruchio that Vincentia is a man, before getting him to admit she is a woman. The play’s coda, played out in silent film, shows Katharina pushing a reluctant and scared Petruchio towards an aeroplane. She uses her hand to give him a boost into his seat – a sly nod to the statement in her monologue that a wife should place her hand beneath her husband’s foot – and winks into the camera before flying off.

Bianca undergoes a transformation, too. She does away with the wig in the latter part of the play, revealing a cropped, brunette haircut, and when Katharina returns to Padua, she is shocked at her sister’s meekness, urging Katharina to stand up for herself. However, such changes and additions seem trite, especially as they do not come with a more comprehensive interrogation of the issues of power and patriarchy that sit at the heart of the play. Bianca’s agency comes at the expense of her sister’s independence, and though this could be read as a commentary on society’s inability to deal with more than one woman’s success at a time, there is no deliberate attempt at such depth.

These nods to a feminist take on Shrew do not “balance out” the choice to include scenes of repeated gaslighting and abusive behaviour. The setting of the production brings a different flavour to the play, but ultimately, Ryan is unsuccessful in his bid to rescue “this classic love story from the clutches of controversy”. Instead, his interpretation succeeds only in papering over these issues. It does not address the structural problems at the core of the text and in this, at least, is a reflection of our times.

Taming of the Shrew plays at Queensland Theatre until June 5.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 22, 2021 as "Taming of the Shrew".

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Yen-Rong Wong is a writer of creative nonfiction, and is currently based in Meanjin (Brisbane), on unceded Jaggera and Turrbal land.