The Taming Of The Shrew – July 2012

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Toby Frow

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Thursday 19th July 2012

Brilliant production! The whole cast were excellent, and the choice to do the play simply, with few fancy stagings but a lot of good business, led to a clear and enjoyable performance which the audience participated in fully.

The set was slightly revised from before. The triangle at the front had been chopped short, with a ramp leading up to the front edge from deep in the pit. The side stairs were still there, and the scaffolding had been replaced with a colonnade and balcony in distressed wood, with the tattered remains of white paint. The balcony backdrop showed the cityscape of fair Padua, except when it had a blue curtain and a deer’s head was hung on the balcony to represent Petruchio’s country estate. The furniture removal men were in full swing as usual, and the musicians wore natty red numbers while the rest of the cast were in appropriate gear for the time and place.

The musicians started proceedings with the latest entries in the mediaeval hit parade, but were interrupted by a rather coarse gentleman in an England shirt, who was obviously the worse for wear. Well, we’re not novices when it comes to this play, so we weren’t worried, but the stewards were, and they were having the devil of a time trying to get him out of the theatre. He broke away from one young lady after kicking her in a nasty place, and ran onto the stage; well, staggered onto the stage. The toilet humour continued with him pissing against the far pillar and then spraying the liquid around a bit, especially over one poor chap at the front of the crowd. After being accosted by a security guard (they managed to find one? Not using G4S, then) he collapsed on the stage and was pronounced dead.

Whispered conversations between the guard and stage manager led to the announcement that the show would have to be cancelled – we voiced our disappointment. Some of the actors had snuck on stage to see what was going on, and after some protests from the stage manager, proceeded to suggest that they could do the show anyway; it helped that the drunk had recovered enough to throw up on the stage, thereby saving himself from an early grave. The suggestion was made “What think you, if he was conveyed to bed…”, and we were into the induction, with us, the audience, being fully complicit this time in the deception practised on Sly. Later, when Sly was asking for assurance that he was, indeed, a lord, he turned to the audience, and we, shameful liars, all called out ‘yes’. (He did check with one woman at the front first, but presumably he didn’t believe her.) This was a good way to start things, as it got the audience very involved from the beginning.

When the actors were trying to persuade Sly – “O this it is that makes your lady mourn” etc. – they chanted the lines and then sang them. When Pip Donaghy wanted to deliver “O noble lord, bethink thee of thy birth…”, the others kept on singing the words after him, and he had several goes at telling them to stop before they all finally shut up and let him speak the lines unaccompanied. One other thing with this staging; when they were setting the initial scene for Sly’s awakening, one actor held up two framed pictures, as if they were on a wall. Later, these pictures were held up while they described them to Sly, along with a frame which an actor posed behind.

The actors already being on stage, the lines about their arrival and the arrangements for the play were ditched. A tall lad was chosen to play Sly’s wife, and after he persuaded Sly that sex would be a bad idea, they went down to the pit and stood at the front of the stage to watch the play. This lasted till the two young men started taking off their clothes, and with cries of “obscenity” (not in the text), Sly and his lady departed. No further reference was made to this sub-plot afterwards, thankfully, and it was good to see them sticking to the text as we have it for once.

To get back to the start of the play: while Lucentio and Tranio were introducing themselves and discussing their ‘to do’ list for their stay in Padua, there were various sober churchmen and the like sitting on the benches round the pillars, along with a refreshments seller. The two scholars on our side held small pamphlets, and when Tranio was talking about studying philosophy, he nicked one of the pamphlets to demonstrate his point. (He did return it.) The seller supplied him with two cups of something or other, and Lucentio drained his willingly before the line “Gramercies, Tranio, well dost thou advise”.

When the older gentlemen realised that Kate was coming on stage – I think there was some noise to that effect – they scarpered as quickly as they could, and the seller was so keen to get away that he left his tray behind. This was an early clue to Kate’s reputation, and her first appearance did nothing to change that. Samantha Spiro’s Kate was so feared by everyone in Padua that she only had to pretend to throw her apple at the men and they flinched. Bianca was good as gold in this scene, and Lucentio fell in love with her from the balcony, where he and Tranio observed the scene. The dialogue wasn’t entirely clear at this point, but my knowledge of the play got me through it OK. When her father slammed the door shut in her face, Kate stepped back and took a run at it, knocking it flat with a ferocious kick. Definitely not a woman to meddle with.

Gremio waved goodbye to Hortensio several times, keen for him to leave so he could disclose to us his cunning plan, but Hortensio lingered long enough to hear the details. He soon persuaded Gremio of their common interest – finding a husband for Kate – and they left together, while Lucentio and Tranio came down from the balcony and went through their routine. Lucentio was so far gone that he knelt down and kissed the stage – Bianca hadn’t even walked on that bit! He went further and further until he was lying on the ramp, and when he came back up to kneeling, his sword was in a suggestive position. I couldn’t see Tranio’s reactions to Lucentio’s idea that they could change places – sometimes he’s actually keen to do it, sometimes not – but this was when they started shedding their clothes and Sly and his ‘wife’ left.

The two lads went further than usual, mind you, with only their underpants preventing an indecency prosecution. When Biondello arrived (the former pretend wife), they explained the plot and exited, just as Petruchio and Grumio entered from our left and walked up the ramp to visit Petruchio’s old friend Hortensio. Grumio, played by Pearce Quigley, was on the slow side and took Petruchio’s instructions literally, hence the problems. I reckoned he’d spent too much time on the estate and wasn’t as street smart as Tranio. I also felt he hadn’t spent as much time with Petruchio as is usually suggested, which was supported by Hortensio’s tentative reference to him as “your ancient, trusty, pleasant servant”. Grumio struck Petruchio as he stood by the top of the ramp, Petruchio grabbed Grumio by the head and used that to knock at the door, and Hortensio appeared on the balcony to enquire about the noise. As Grumio staggered back towards the front of the stage, Hortensio saw him first, and then Petruchio walked out from under the balcony to be greeted by his friend; I think some of the dialogue was cut here.

There was the usual laugh when Hortensio described Katherine, pausing before mentioning “her only fault”. Gremio turned up with Lucentio in disguise, and then Tranio, disguised as Lucentio, arrived. As Tranio, he had an Irish accent but talked as posh as he could while pretending to be a gentleman. He was also wearing a wig, and while he wasn’t as ludicrous as some we’ve seen, he was sufficiently inappropriate to be funny. When challenged about his purpose in going to Baptista Minola’s he drew his sword on Gremio, who drew a sword out of this walking stick in response. When Hortensio joined in the questioning, Tranio turned the sword on him, and Petruchio supplied Hortensio with a weapon. With two swords to his one, Tranio soon became reasonable, and joined the confederacy willingly enough. Also, when Gremio declared himself a suitor to Bianca, Grumio snorted with laughter, a reasonable response in the circumstances as Michael Bertenshaw was playing Gremio with a serious stoop.

As they left, Bianca stumbled onto the stage, blindfolded and with her hands tied together. She tried a few steps, but didn’t get very far, and then Kate arrived, brandishing a bullwhip. She cracked it a number of times and Bianca was scared at first, but then she rallied and began to fight back. When her hands were untied, they really started brawling, rolling on the stage as they fought, but then Bianca saw their father coming along and fell back, sobbing. The cow! We weren’t impressed, and there was a lot of sympathy for Kate in this scene, but not from her father and certainly not from Bianca, who made all the usual rude gestures at Kate behind her father’s back, including biting her thumb (see Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 1).

The procession of visitors was funny, with Hortensio disguised by a beard, glasses and a pillbox hat, and Biondello carrying a huge stack of books which he could only just manage (and he’s a tall chap). Petruchio’s question to Baptista “have you not a daughter call’d Katherina, fair and virtuous?” got more of a laugh on the question rather than Baptista’s stunned response, and the introduction of ‘Licio’ was quite funny too; I wasn’t sure if Petruchio had agreed the fake name with Hortensio beforehand or not. Everyone else left the stage to Petruchio and Baptista for the dowry discussion, and there was one bit of screaming and thumping before Hortensio reappeared, hat askew. The lute wasn’t wrapped round him this time, but a broken instrument was thrown out onto the stage a few moments later, accompanied by another snarling sound, so that we could see what he was describing. He looked pretty unhappy at his treatment, and for once I was aware that he was a gentleman, not used to acting like a servant and certainly not used to this sort of treatment, as he usually stayed well out of Kate’s reach. This incident got across what an unpleasant woman Kate is at this point, treating servants like punch bags.

Hortensio cheered up a lot when Baptista suggested he work with Bianca, and from dragging himself round the stage, he fairly skipped off to do Baptista’s bidding. Baptista was clearly keen for Petruchio to meet Kate out of doors – less damage to the household goods – and Petruchio readily agreed. When Kate arrived, and he turned to see her, their first look was clearly one of mutual attraction; he was stunned that she was so beautiful, and she was surprised to see someone she liked the look of. They both recovered enough to start their wrangling, and there was a fair bit of physical sparring as well. It all happened so fast that I can’t remember it all, but it included Petruchio holding her at arm’s length while she tried to hit him, and a game of chase round the pit, where Kate pretended to punch some of the audience members. Petruchio tripped her up as she came back up the stairs, hence the reference to her limp. When the others came back, I think they were sitting side by side on the stage, with her skirt partly over Petruchio’s legs (but I may be wrong). Kate was shocked and unhappy to overhear Petruchio’s excuse to the rest that she would “still be curst in company”.

The bidding for Bianca was enjoyable enough, and I realised that although the details Gremio is giving seem strange to us now, the value of these objects in those days would be much greater than we appreciate in our mass production culture. Earlier, Gremio tells Cambio that he will have some books of love “very fairly bound”, and from recent documentaries we’ve learned just how expensive such things were, so presumably the other items were worth mentioning as well. Tranio really enjoyed trumping Gremio at every turn, and we were sorry for poor Gremio when he could offer no more.

The wooing scene between Licio, Cambio and Bianca was good fun, with Bianca starting to assert herself more without actually appearing shrewish herself. She and Cambio sat on a bench to begin with, but moved forward to the ramp as their discussion progressed. During the music lesson, Licio strummed his lute after Bianca read each line of the gamut, which was funny.

The wedding scene was very good fun. We felt sorry for Kate in her predicament, and Biondello’s speech about Petruchio and his horse went down very well. He had the decency to rush through the long litany of the horse’s complaints, as none of us would have known what they were anyway. The comments ascribed to Tranio in my text were actually said by Licio, which made more sense with Hortensio being an old friend of Petruchio’s. Petruchio’s arrival confirmed the description of him; one boot was hanging off, his clothes were extremely tatty, and his horse was actually Grumio, with a bit between his teeth and a pair of coconut shells to make the hoof beats. Petruchio had a carrot dangling somewhere, which he fed to Grumio, and when he was asked to doff his clothes, he did. Off came the jerkin, off came the shirt, and off came the trousers as well. Fortunately he kept his well-padded posing pouch on “else we had been all shamed”.

Hortensio offered to supply alternative clothes; Simon Paisley Day (Petruchio) is a good bit taller than Rick Warden (Hortensio), and they put in some good business whereby Petruchio held his hand up at his own height and waved it over Hortensio’s head to indicate that the offer just wasn’t going to work. From our angle, we were aware that Petruchio’s cheeks were on show, but when he turned to go into the church there was a huge roar from the crowd. I didn’t hear all the lines between Lucentio and Tranio, but Gremio soon joined them, and his description of the wedding ceremony was as clear as I’ve heard before.

When the wedding party re-entered, I had the impression that Petruchio was figuring out his tactics as he went along. His initial declaration that Kate was his property was not well received by the audience, but he took his time between his descriptions of her, and when he said “my barn” the whole speech took on a surreal air; even Kate was a bit perplexed by the description. After that, we could see the humour of it, and there was even some applause as he and Grumio clip-clopped off to the sound of the coconut shells with Kate slung over Petruchio’s shoulder. The rest of the characters had obviously enjoyed the spectacle, and as they left the stage for the wedding feast, Biondello was at the back of the group and gestured for the rest of us to go and get our own refreshments during the interval. Almost forgot – the priest was leaning on Baptista during this part, after the battering he’d taken during the ceremony.

The second half opened at Petruchio’s place. Some of the cast brought out a long table, some plates, etc., and a large tablecloth. They never actually put the cloth on the table, mind you, though it went just about everywhere else – wrapped around one chap as a skirt, held up as a bed sheet and the like. They sang an older version of The Cuckoo’s Nest – not one we’d heard before – and it was a good warm-up for the audience. There were two chairs, one at either end of the table, with antler-shapes on the arms and across the back. With these and the deer’s head, the setting of an old-fashioned country house was well established.

Grumio arrived with the coconut shells, and after telling us how cold he was, called for Curtis. For once there was no great fuss about getting the work done; as Curtis kept reassuring him, everything was ready. For the fire, Curtis referred to a lit candle on the table – not much use I would have thought – but the fun was in Grumio’s telling of the story to bring us up-to-date which came across better than usual. The other servants arrived when called, eventually, and again the impression I had was of slower-witted country folk, similar to the servants in She Stoops To Conquer.

Petruchio and Kate arrived, and she was definitely bedraggled. He didn’t look much different, but then he was dressed so badly for the wedding who would have noticed? The water was spilled over Kate this time, due to Petruchio tipping up the table at the other end, and I noticed how Kate was becoming much more aware of other people’s suffering. When the meat arrived the servants loaded up the plates, but each servant who held Kate’s plate was distracted by Petruchio’s next instruction. Kate was at the far end of the table when she finally had a plate in front of her, and then came the grace, which took an age. The meat soon went flying, and the large joint was tossed between the servants, too hot for anyone to hold for long. Meanwhile Kate dashed between them, trying to get some meat for herself, a classic game of pig-in-the-middle.

Once they left, the servants cleared the food (there were lots of sausage rolls and bits of carrot all over the place), while Curtis snuck up the stairs to report on events in the bed chamber. We could hear ‘yes, yes, yes, YES’ from Kate, followed by ‘no, no’ from Petruchio. When he came out onto the balcony, he began his speech up there, but came down to the stage pretty quickly. No one responded when he asked for other ideas, not surprisingly. This can be a difficult speech, but this time I was aware that he was showing Kate her own behaviour, and giving her a chance to break free of her habit of scolding everyone. She was already well on the way, so Petruchio didn’t seem unkind or nasty in doing this; instead he seemed to be the only person who could help such a damaged woman.

Tranio and Hortensio entered for the next scene, both in disguise, while Bianca and Lucentio were up on the balcony. They indulged in some kissing, and then slid down below the railing. Various items of clothing were thrown over the rail to the stage below, while Hortensio revealed himself to Tranio by taking off his hat and pulling his beard up to rest on top of his head – very funny. Lucentio and Bianca reappeared on the balcony, still snogging, and finally Hortensio left in disgust. Tranio gave the couple the good news – they came down to join him on the stage – and then Biondello turned up with the sighting of a likely prospect to play Vincentio.

When the pedant arrived, he was more smartly dressed than most. Tranio and Biondello stood in his way at the top of the ramp, and although he got past them eventually, they soon had him hooked with their fake story. The table came back on with the chairs, and then Grumio tormented Kate with all the food she couldn’t have. He kept getting up to go to the kitchen for the food, then realising it might be “too choleric” and sitting down again. The final time he didn’t even move from the table before deciding against the food in question.

Petruchio came on with a whole roast chicken on a platter. He put it fairly central on the table, so it was just out of Kate’s reach when she lunged for it. He moved it even further off, then took it away altogether as she crawled along the table to get at it. She was kneeling on the table when he insisted on being thanked for his effort, and the expressions on her face were priceless; it cost her dear to thank him, but she managed to get a rather sulky “I thank you, sir” out after several attempts. With her sitting at the middle of the table now, and Hortensio at the end, Petruchio kept her distracted for a short time while Hortensio shoved most of the chicken in his napkin and wolfed down the rest.

The table was removed quickly to leave room for the tailor and his goods. Grumio was the model for the dress this time; I couldn’t see the ripping of the sleeve as he was behind the pillar, but the overall effect was clear. The tailor left with the remains of the dress, and Kate was lying on the stage, eyes closed as if asleep. Petruchio noted this and tested her with his reference to the time. Ever alert for a quarrel, she opened her eyes and put him straight, but to no avail.

The scene where Tranio introduced the pedant to Baptista was very funny, with the pedant having difficulty remembering his lines and being prompted by Tranio, Lucentio and Biondello behind Baptista’s back. With Baptista satisfied, and the rest heading off to continue their business privately, Biondello had the usual amount of trouble getting Lucentio to take the hint – Bianca, church, parson; how difficult is it?

Petruchio, Hortensio, Grumio, Kate and two or three other servants came trekking on to the stage, singing a farming list song. They’d obviously been singing it for some time on their journey, as it had quite a few animals on the list already – cow, sheep, etc. As they went up the steps below us, Kate was clinging on to people in the audience, and for her turn she came up with ‘pig’. They had some trouble getting the right pig noise out of her, and then Petruchio started on his moonshine nonsense. The servants who were ahead of them had reached the far steps and stopped for a rest; when Petruchio decided to return to his house, one of them came back while the other actually kept going! Don’t know what happened there. Finally Kate decided to stop arguing, and went along with whatever Petruchio said.

The real Vincentio came along, and Kate began to enjoy herself. She checked with Petruchio that it was indeed the sun that had bedazzled her eyes, and Vincentio joined in nicely by addressing Kate as “Fair sir” and Petruchio as “my merry mistress”, which was taken in good part. I did spot the plot discrepancy in this scene, when Petruchio tells Vincentio that his son is to be married to Kate’s sister and Hortensio confirms it – hasn’t he just agreed with ‘Lucentio’ that they will both shun Bianca? But perhaps a message reached them that we’re unaware of, and Hortensio has got over ‘Lucentio’s’ apparent betrayal of their agreement. (Shows how clearly the story was being told, mind you.)

Their arrival at ‘Lucentio’s’ lodgings was good fun, and although I missed some of it behind the pillars, I got the gist. The pretend Vincentio was wonderfully drunk as he leaned over the parapet to inform the real Vincentio that ‘Lucentio’ needed no money from a stranger, as long as his ‘father’ was here. The reactions of Biondello and Tranio were very enjoyable, and Petruchio and Kate withdrew to the bottom of the ramp to watch the fun. The revelations concluded, off they trooped to the feast, except Kate, Petruchio and Grumio. When Kate finally agreed to the kiss, she and Petruchio were about to indulge themselves on the top of the ramp when they noticed Grumio peering at them. They waved him away, and he slunk off to the stairs near us, where he craftily took a mirror out of his pouch, polished it and used it to check up on the loving couple, who by now were well into a serious snog. The audience responded warmly, both to the kiss and to Grumio’s sneaky trick with the mirror. Kate and Petruchio paused for breath (eventually) and left for the feast themselves.

The servants took a few moments to set up the stage with chairs, cushions and chandeliers, and for the first time I was aware that this is Lucentio’s apartments we’re visiting; it’s usually shown as Baptista’s place. One of the servants sat on one of the chairs and it broke! They brought a replacement, so all was well, and with the cast changed into their posh frocks, the final scene began. Kate and Petruchio lounged on cushions near the front of the stage, Hortensio’s widow was on a chair on the far side, while Bianca and Lucentio, as far as I can remember, were on the cushions on the far side. The banter was well done, and the ladies withdrew up the stairs and through the curtain. When the bet was proposed, the servants cleared the chairs and cushions but put a table in the middle of the stage for the money (and drinks). Biondello went through the curtains for the first summons, and while they waited for him they did the speeding-up clapping. He reappeared on the balcony, Bianca-less, and was sent back again for the widow. Again the clapping, again no widow. For Kate’s summoning, the men took no interest, thinking she wouldn’t come, but she was through those curtains like a shot. She held a brief pause, for the men to realise she’d actually turned up, before asking “What is your will, sir, that you send for me?” I always think that Kate must realise there’s something going on – the widow has spotted the same thing – and she’s probably prepared for the call before it arrives. The men were suitably amazed.

She brought the other women out, and we were at the last hurdle. Kate went into the speech promptly this time, and her delivery suggested a woman who was now at ease with herself and the overt position she has in society. She wasn’t downtrodden, she had simply broken free from her old ways of thinking, and her statement of wifely duty was quite straightforward. When she mentioned a husband being “thy lord, thy life” etc., she was looking at the widow, and Hortensio, who was standing beside his new wife, looked a little sheepish at first but then straightened himself up, as if remembering that he was supposed to be all the things that Kate was saying. And although it wasn’t emphasised as such, I noticed that Kate recommends obedience to “his honest will”, implying that there’s no duty to obey a husband’s every whim, but only those directions that are reasonable. Of course, it’s not so easy to handle the comments about women being all soft and cuddly and unsuited to toil when most of us have to go out and work nowadays, nor do those lines apply to the working women of Shakespeare’s time, but the use of Elizabethan costumes did at least allow us to shift perspective at this point and see those lines as part of that culture rather than ours.

The final act, putting her hand on the ground for Petruchio to stand on, was done with great loving, and I sensed an anxiety in the audience (including me) as to what Petruchio would do. He walked over to her slowly, and as he stepped in front of her he knelt down, took her hand up and kissed it, then embraced her with the line “ Why, there’s a wench!” It was a lovely moment, and suggested they would have a happy life together. With no need to go back to the Sly subplot, they could now go into the dance, and we clapped along, very happy with our afternoon. I left the theatre feeling elated, not something that usually happens with this play, and I would happily recommend this production to anyone.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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