Globe, 06.08.16, with Giulia, Nicola, Marco, and others
In a year of multiple anniversaries, Caroline Byrne’s Taming of the Shrew stages two at once: Shakespeare celebrating his 400th death-day against the centenary of the Easter Rising. This is a striking, elegant and thought-provoking Shrew, with an excellent all-Irish cast, lengthy interludes of Irish music at the top of each half, and added songs which attempt to situate Katharine’s personal rebellion in relation to a historical political uprising. The Dublin setting is a relatively token framing gesture – mentions of Padua, Pisa and Mantua in the text go unchanged – but it is an effective collision of ideas insofar as it draws attention to the voices left behind by any given revolution. An Irish staging of this play notorious for its gender politics also seems particularly appropriate at a time when the Waking the Feminists movement has so much energy in Irish theatre.
Though its unusual setting makes this production seem on the face of it to be a different beast from other Shrews, it ultimately comes with all the same dilemmas: what do you do with a play which clearly believes itself to be a comedy, but whose cruel ending we cannot possibly celebrate? The final scene is the acid test: Katharine, formerly famed for her outspokenness and independence, lectures the other women at some length on the obedience a wife owes to her husband. We can only assume this was a desirable conclusion at the time of writing – Shakespeare and his audience must have believed that neither Katharine nor Petruchio could live happily ever after without her capitulation. The Globe’s convivial atmosphere tends to encourage productions to play for laughs, which compounds the existing issue – the space and the text both want us to accept a comic and indeed romantic understanding of Katharine and Petruchio’s relationship by the end of the play. A lot of productions have tried to recast the moment as a practical joke played by the couple on the other characters. Bolder productions play it straight, shaming the play for trying to be a comedy and shaming the audience for wanting it to be one (the most uncomfortable moment in this production is when the audience are encouraged to chant ‘kiss, kiss, kiss’ at Katherine). In this case, Katharine’s speech is sincere and exhausted; the other characters respond with growing horror as she goes on, as though realising for the first time that ‘taming’ is not particularly good joke. Naturally, given that this is the Globe, the serious mood does not prevent an exuberant jig afterwards.
The whole of the second half has an underlying bleakness to it which anticipates the finale – Kate stays in her wedding gown, which becomes more and more ragged, exposing the skeletal underskirt; the marriage bed is just a wooden frame at a precipitous angle on a heap of dirt. It’s quite a shift of tone from the first half. The shenanigans perpetrated by Bianca’s many suitors are played up with physical comedy and oversized elaborate props, including a full-sized model skeleton, an abacus, and (of course!) a globe. Lucentio enters on a scooter, beaming at the audience. The jazzy tweeds and plaids of the men’s costumes contribute to a comic mood. The surfeit of suitors makes this plot-strand work best as broad slapstick, in this case providing a foil to a much more serious treatment of the Katharine/Petruchio plot.
Aoife Duffin gives an impassioned performance as Katharine – she defiantly reads a newspaper in an early scene, unapologetically scratches her arse and picks her nose in front of her sister’s suitors, sings the interpolated ballads with enormous feeling, and gradually withers with exhaustion as the second half goes on. Amy Conroy as the widow gets a lot of laughs out of a near-silent performance, staring into the audience in indignation as the male characters casually pass around misogynist insults. All of the male servants are played by female actors – perhaps as a commentary on the play’s inbuilt assumptions about a woman’s role in marriage. Imogen Doel’s Tranio stands out – nearly every line comes with a wink at the audience and a lot of energetic clowning; the production also gets a lot of comic energy out of the size difference between her and Aaron Heffernan’s handsome but gullible Lucentio.
My main reservation about this production – which is partly a criticism of the whole season rather than of this show – is how little it seemed to belong in the Globe. In the first half, some of the sexist jokes were addressed directly to audience members, but as it got dark the stage lights came up, enforcing a division between stage and audience that I’ve never felt in that theatre before. The set was effective and adaptable, but it effectively boxed in the whole existing backdrop and replaced it with the kind of multi-level set that could have been seen in any indoor theatre in London. The jig and the last-night ritual of speeches and rose-tossing restored the Globe’s familiar atmosphere, but it was clear here as in Macbeth that adding more lighting and sound equipment to the Globe stage has a significant effect on the experience.