The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Caroline Byrne for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 6th August 2016
Reviewed by Emer McHugh, NUI Galway
For the last year or so, I’ve kept an eye on the programming schedules for the major theatres in the UK and Ireland for 2016. When you work on Shakespeare and Ireland in a major anniversary year such as this one – a Shakespeare 400/1916 double whammy, as you’ll have seen looking at this blog’s archives – looking at how major theatrical institutions mark these commemorations becomes of major interest. (I even had a makeshift scorecard at some point.) For example, the National Theatre are doing The Plough and the Stars; the Abbey did the same, as well as bringing Joe Dowling back to the theatre with Othello (interestingly, it was initially marketed as a ‘state of the nation’ play, a description that disappeared from the website as the run began). But, I don’t think I ever would have expected a combination of both commemorations to come from Shakespeare’s Globe. Then again, new artistic director Emma Rice continues to be full of surprises. And thus, we have Caroline Byrne’s The Taming of the Shrew, set in 1916 Ireland with an Irish cast and crew.
To be sure, this Shrew deals in a broad, globalised, commoditised Irishness – the musicians played their jigs and reels (strikingly reminiscent of Riverdance at times, of course) on the bodhrán, tin whistle, fiddle, and guitar for the crowd’s pleasure: all the audience needed were pints of Guinness and we’d be at a seisiún right there and then. The characters’ accents and dispositions varied from person to person, region to region: Edward MacLiam’s Petruchio was reminiscent of the Limerick comedian Tommy Tiernan, with slight Northern tones. Aaron Heffernan’s Lucentio and Imogen Doel’s Tranio sported broad Dublin accents, as did Aoife Duffin’s Kate and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman’s Bianca who were both portrayed as upper-class Dubliners. And Colm Gormley’s Hortensio also spoke in a Northern burr. Characters either wore flat caps and breeches, or looked as if they had just stepped out of a Bloomsday celebration (take Raymond Keane’s Gremio and his boater hat and suit as an example of the latter). The text was altered to add elements of Hiberno-English such as ‘Jaysus’, ‘mo chara’, and ‘go raibh mile maith agaibh’. The world of the play, too, was noticeably Irish Catholic: during her wedding, Kate sat on top of two staircases that folded together to display a neon-light cross, whereas Petruchio’s admission to Gremio that ‘me father died’ was met with numerous members of the cast blessing themselves with the sign of the cross. None of this is necessarily a criticism of the production, per se. A lot of this Irishness generated much humour from the proceedings, and certainly I found it funny given how recognisable it was to me as an Irish member of the audience. (And, so it seemed, from a lot of the audience as well.) However, given that this was performed at the Globe, and therefore for a majorly non-Irish audience, it makes me wonder whether this Irishness would manifest in the same way were it premiering at the Abbey, for Druid, or at the Lyric.
Another important context to take note of is the #WakingTheFeminists movement: it’s particularly satisfying that a production set in 1916 responds to a movement born out of the response to a programme of events commemorating that same year. And generally, it’s satisfying to encounter feminist [Irish] Shakespeare on a major British stage, too. From the get-go, the production is sympathetic to Kate, and suggests that her taming by Petruchio is unnecessary and unneeded. From her spoken-word songs about how ‘the nation promised equality’, to her newspaper being ripped out of her hand by her own father, to the production refusing to shy away from the psychological and emotional abuse Petruchio subjects her to (she spends the second half in her torn wedding dress, sleeping on a bed with only Petruchio’s cowskin cape as a duvet) – this Shrew emphasises the implications of a patriarchal Irish Catholic society on the lives of women. In doing so, it does not provide easy answers: Kate delivers her final speech in resignation, anger, and frustration at the world she is forced to inhabit, and her relationship with a troubled-looking Petruchio is left up in the air. Additionally, it emphasises these women’s voices: instead of Petruchio, Kate is given the production’s final words through song, and Amy Conroy’s Widow has a much more expanded role to play: always watching, always waiting, quietly despairing at what unfolds in front of her. Throughout the production, she acts as Kate’s chain-smoking de facto feminist fairy godmother, providing unheard counsel and advice – to the point where the final scene appears to be a battle between her and Petruchio for Kate’s soul. (A Pyrrhic victory for Petruchio is implied, of course.) As Byrne comments in her programme note, ‘[i]t’s not a play about the Easter Rising, but it attempts to chime with the experience of Irish women’: Kate’s journey, and her trauma, is depicted sensitively and with nuance, and, in my view, provides a model of what feminist Shakespeare performance should look like.
It’s not unusual for Irish Shakespeare performance to respond to and to engage with the politics and issues of the here and now. If we reach back as far as 1999, Conall Morrison’s The Tempest premiered at the Abbey echoing the Good Friday Agreement a year before. Very recently, Wayne Jordan’s Twelfth Night at the Abbey acted as a response to Pantigate, a year before Ireland went to the polls on marriage equality, whereas his Romeo and Juliet at the Gate explored the ramifications of patriarchal societal structures. Shrew, whereas it may not have premiered in Ireland, speaks to particularly Irish concerns: Byrne states that ‘Irish women are still seeking equality to this day’, and this is reflected in the ongoing efforts of Lian Bell and her team to attain equality and equity in all sectors of Irish theatre, as well as the ongoing campaign to repeal the eighth amendment on abortion by many feminist campaigners (most recently seen in the Two Women Travel Twitter account and Brianna Parkins’ comments at the Rose of Tralee). Of course, I am not sure if all of this was in the mind of Globe audiences throughout the production’s run. I am also not sure if the production’s feminism was in every audience member’s mind either: judging by the ‘Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!’ chant Petruchio encourages the crowd to partake in very early on in the evening, as well as the cheering and whooping that greets a later kiss between the two. Both times, Duffin’s Kate is uncomfortable and unwilling to participate. So the next step, then, is for Byrne to bring her feminist Shakespeare to Irish audiences. If she does, I look forward to it. Her Shrew is vital, fearless, and willing to ask difficult questions.
Emer McHugh is an Irish Research Council-funded doctoral researcher and tutor at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance at NUI Galway, where she researches the cultural politics of Irish Shakespeare performance in modern and contemporary Ireland. Follow her on Twitter at @emeramchugh.