Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Mar 19 – 28, 2016
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Damien Ryan
Cast: Robert Alexander, George Banders, Angela Bauer, Michael Cullen, Barry French, Terry Karabelas, George Kemp, Danielle King, James Lugton, Lizzie Schebesta, Christopher Stalley, Christopher Tomkinson, Amy Usherwood, Eloise Winestock
Image by Marnya Rothe
The Minola sisters are the very antithesis to each other’s being. Bianca is sugar, spice and everything nice, while Katharina is outspoken and rebellious. In Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew, we witness patriarchy at its worst, exposed through the way women are idealised and diminished, made to conform to rules that apply only to their gender. Bianca is perfect, but Katharina is flawed, never mind that Katharina’s behaviour, although vilified, is much closer in essence to the menfolk’s than the anomalously agreeable personality of Bianca. Women are not allowed the same liberties. Like the men in the story, Katharina is too loud, she complains too much, and is uninterested in marriage, but she alone is a figure of contention, and the world resolutely inflicts upon her, that same subjugation and suppression virtually all women have had to endure.
Damien Ryan’s direction does not provide the answer to how we can subvert Shakespeare’s writing for a feminist interpretation, but it is a thought-provoking work nonetheless, sensitive to modern sensibilities regarding representation and politics of gender. The highly controversial speech by Katharina that concludes the play, and that demonstrates the successful vanquishment of her spirit, is orchestrated not with a celebratory tone as originally intended, but with an aura of tribulation. The words are offensive but they are not censored. Ryan does his best to convey the problematic nature of ideologies that underpin the play, but it is ultimately a reverential work that asks many right questions without actually hitting back at its master’s sins. Politics aside, the production is highly entertaining and wildly inventive, leaving no stone unturned for a theatrical experience rich with spectacle and wonder.
If the most significant trait of live performance is the very liveness of its reality, then The Taming Of The Shrew is a triumph of energy and impulse. Although tightly rehearsed, the ensemble is doggedly present and full of vitality. Danielle King is the shrew in question, unapologetically feisty in her portrayal of delicious recalcitrance. Playing the softer sister, but no less powerful, is Lizzie Schebesta, impressive with her physical agility and humour. Both actors bring to the stage passion and strength, creating characters independently admirable, shifting slightly the text’s repugnant power imbalance of genders. Also memorable is Terry Karabelas as Hortensio, full of dramatic exuberance, enthralling in all his scenes and irresistibly funny with every deliberate gesture.
The production begins with an announcement of thanks to supporters of independent theatre, but we soon discover that our associations of independence with smallness has no bearing at all on the scale of talent displayed here. Design aspects of the show are uniformly superb. Anna Gardiner’s set design is charming, surprising and gloriously innovative. Lights by Sian James-Holland are boundlessly dynamic and sophisticated, and sound by Tom Allum is replete with instinctual accuracy. We are treated to a thing of great beauty, marvellously polished and thoroughly delightful with its aesthetic explorations.
With patriarchy reinforced by Katharina’s transformation and her eventual discovery of love and happiness, the audience is left in two minds. If we believe in happily ever after, then our protagonist’s debasement is to a certain degree, justified. We can acknowledge that playing by the rules of the boys’ club has its rewards, but it does not take extraordinary incisiveness to perceive the immorality that is at play. Authenticity is compromised, and the cards are stacked against half of us, in a game that we all have trouble avoiding. Shakespeare’s persistence in our cultural landscape is a reflection of the maleness that flaunts its dominance. Unable to help ourselves, we keep going back to the Bard and all his archaic ideas, that we insist on perpetuating for all time.