The Taming of the Shrew isn’t a piece of Shakespeare I rush out to see at every opportunity, but with Peter Hinton directing, I couldn’t resist. His Swanne Trilogy, Into the Woods, and Fanny Kemble established him for me as a director worth watching. He is currently the artistic director of the National Arts Centre English Theatre in Ottawa.
For this production of Shrew, Hinton has retained the Induction, a framing device that makes the main story of Kate and Petruchio a play-within-a-play. This device is jetisoned in some performances, but here it is not only retained but modified in a way that changes the character balance in what will follow.
Christopher Sly, a drunkard, staggers about a tavern and falls asleep on the floor. In the original, a visiting nobleman decides to play a trick by dressing up Sly as a Lord and, once he awakes, feigning that he has lost his memory. The tavern inmates, a group of actors and the real nobleman’s party will put on a play for his entertainment, and this inner play is The Taming of the Shrew.
In Hinton’s version, the nobleman is none other than Queen Elizabeth who is out on the town (echoes here of Elizabeth Rex, not to mention A Midsummer Night’s Dream). When Sly awakes, he is attended by his long-lost “wife”, actually the Queen’s page Bartholemew.
In a nice touch for the regulars, the bell traditionally announcing the start of Stratford performances does not ring until the inner play begins.
Hinton does everything he can to make us see the play in fresh clothes. Petruchio’s servant, Grumio, is played by Lucy Peacock (the Tavern Wench of the Induction), and she is acknowledged as female throughout. This puts some swaggering lines into Peacock’s mouth, but it also allows for glimpses of a loyalty to her master beyond that of a servant. Indeed, she may know a kinder side to Petruchio than he lets on publicly.
Petruchio himself has the requisite swagger, but Evan Buliung doesn’t play him as a complete heel. His reaction to Kate almost suggests that he sees her as a real match, in some ways his equal, but her own temper and convention of the times demand that he turn her to his will. Of course we could ask why he doesn’t just have a quiet chat and say “now look, Kate, you’re a fine woman, and if only you’ll play along, we can have a great life together”. Alas, Shakespeare didn’t write it that way, and Hinton has to hope that the audience will pick up on Petruchio’s good side.
Irene Poole’s Katherina has every reason to be a shrew. Her father refuses to let her younger sister, Bianca, wed until Kate herself is out of the house. Kate has a limp (a trait not usually seen in productions of the play, but supported by the text) and has probably been on the outside of society all her life despite her fine wit and self confidence. She is permanently angry at the world and anyone who tries to manipulate her life.
There’s lots of wooing going on, what with Bianca’s trail of admirers, and it’s the trickster Lucentio, masquerading as a tutor, who wins her hand in the end. Almost everyone is pretending to be someone they’re not, and even Elizabeth herself is drawn into the play as a widow who marries Hortensio, one of Bianca’s suitors.
By the time we reach Kate’s big speech about submission to the will of her lord, Hinton hopes that we won’t take it too seriously, that we will assume Kate, like everyone else, is playing her part as the dutiful wife. Indeed, Hinton has Kate give this speech primarily to the “widow” Queen Elizabeth, the most powerful and unsubmissive woman in the land.
The staging cleverly draws on the Festival Theatre’s space. Gone is the conventional balcony, replaced by a rough frame that doubles as part of the tavern in which the action begins. This frame can withdraw completely leaving the entire stage free for the actors, or roll downstage to become the cold, drafty house to which Petruchio takes Kate after their marriage.
Whether we can believe the many levels of play-acting were really what Shakespeare had in mind, especially as this was an early play in his career, is a topic for much post-performance debate. Too many productions of Shrew have taken the text and its lessons about a woman’s place in life quite literally, and the play itself was controversial even in Shakespeare’s day. One has to work very hard to see all this as a satire, but I give Peter Hinton full marks for trying.
The Taming of the Shrew runs at the Festival Theatre until October 25.