Fortune’s Fool Productions, The Iveagh Gardens, Dublin, 6-16 August 2015
“Why are the men playing women and the women playing men?” asks the actor playing Christopher Sly—to the audience’s delight—towards the beginning of this production of The Taming of the Shrew in Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens. It is one of many such interjections in the course of an enjoyable and thoughtful performance by Fortune’s Fool productions that makes the most of the free, outdoor setting to reflect on social role playing, inequality, and the theatre of everyday life.
The Taming of the Shrew is undoubtedly a nasty play in many ways. Michael Billington once called for it to be banned altogether, so disgusting and barbaric was it in his estimation (he later changed his position). It is also an enduringly popular play, with a long and lively stage history. The first tension this play throws up to its director, then, is surely how to manage the theatrical pleasure and energy of the script alongside the troubling plot and its misogynistic foundations. After all, what are we to make of this ‘pleasant comedie’ (induction, 2.121) in which a woman is starved, exhausted, and humiliated into a submission that is apparently celebrated by all in the denouement?
In response to the frequently queasy subject matter of the Petruccio and Katherina plot, this production chooses to return to the original playtext, emphasising the framing device offered in the induction, a scene which is sometimes omitted from stagings of the play and nearly always absent in its adaptation on screen. Extending the doubling and distancing afforded by this device, this production has Christopher Sly remain on stage to watch the Shrew play with the rest of us (although somewhat more vocally), alongside his ‘wife’ (a male servant whom we have witnessed being dressed in the disguise of a brightly coloured hoop skirt frame). This is a production that insists we approach Katherina’s ‘taming’ and our reaction to it with role playing and the constructedness of social relations to the fore of our minds.
Choosing to amplify the metatheatricality of the play works especially well here as it makes an asset out of the porousness of the boundary between stage and audience and harnesses the messy energy of the open air, free of charge setting. The ragged edges of the performance space became part of the point of the play as I watched it on a sunny evening last week. People came and left, a man arrived with a stack of pizza boxes, children played, and at one point a delightful little girl (who must have a future on the stage) announced firmly ‘look at me, mammy!’ Performance, ritual, and theatre were unfurling all around us, as the actors entered and exited through the crowd, looped around the circumference of the audience, exchanging asides as they went, or stood in black-clad groups in the shadows of the trees forming the wings of the stage.
A further distancing device was the gender switch casting of Petruccio (a compelling performance by Aoibhéann McCann) and Katherine (a curiously poignant James Jaggs, in full beard) who remained in their own, only vaguely androgynous clothing. On one level, this simply rendered the action palatable. The verbal wit and chemistry of the couple’s first meeting as performed here made irresistibly appealing theatre. But it wasn’t mere escape, as the laughter it provoked seemed necessarily to carry the awareness of how unpleasant the sexual aggression of this scene would be without the gender reverse casting and the emphasis on performativity.
The ‘submission speech’ at the end of the play, where a firm but dignified Katherina schools the other wives in their duty, was played straight, but the moral to be taken was far from clear. At this point in the production, the frame seemed to melt away and what was left was the emotional tenor of Katherina’s and Petruccio’s relationship. A fraught balance had been attained and an acceptable social identity negotiated within which Katherina’s sharp tongue was now sanctioned. But the norms of society on which this negotiation rested no longer seemed very normal at all, and the structures upholding it far from natural or neutral.
It was refreshing to see troubling questions addressed and in particular to have them jostling up through the abundant physical comedy, popular song, and dance that the production excelled in. These elements felt particularly true to the hybridity of early modern theatre and provided welcome fun, especially in moments where the script could have been trimmed a little more ruthlessly.
As the characters in the play-within-the-play set off to Katherina and Petruccio’s wedding reception, Christopher Sly is prevented from joining them—“but there’ll be free drink”, he laments. Staging this play in Ireland with the referendum for marriage equality a recent memory, Fortune’s Fool Productions succeeds in making us think about love, power, society, the construction of unjust hierarchies, and the strangeness of social ritual, where the absurd and the sublime often collide.