Back in 2015, I missed out on the opportunity to see Stratford’s Taming of the Shrew but on July 31st CBC allowed people like me to see the filmed version. It is a part of their initiative to make arts more available to those who may otherwise be unable to see them in person. This version stars married actors Deborah Hay and Ben Carlson and was directed by Chris Abraham. The Stratford show could be seen as two extremes coming together to meet in the middle. Katherine and Petruchio shed their performed behaviours and find truthfulness in their love.
Firstly, shout out to the costume department on this show. I cannot count how many times I cringed watching this showing thinking about the post-show laundry and damage control that must have taken place after each performance. Katherine frequently rips or dirties costumes throughout the show which means many hours of work after hours for the costume team.
I should start by talking about the opening because Abraham’s Shrew threw caution to the wind with it. The show opened with a funny introduction from Tom Rooney with a large rack of costumes positioned behind him. One of the things he commented on was the universal act of performance that everyone – including those not on stage – participate in. Shout out to Queen’s DRAM100 class for teaching me about performativity. This is a central idea to Abraham’s Taming of the Shrew and, in my opinion, what makes it a successful show.
They had Deborah Hay and the other women come out and sing a little diddy about a virgin about to get married. It is rudely interrupted by a rowdy audience member who proclaims he is a blogger and shouts about how Stratford is asking for men to objectify these ladies because they are so beautiful. Hmm it’s almost like Abraham is setting the audience up to think that is not okay. Very appropriate considering the plotline we are about to experience. The scene melts in between World A and B before settling into B for the rest of the show. It was a nice little nod to the audience and a reminder that we are just as involved in the performance as the actors.
It was also good to introduce the amount of duplicity that would take place in this version of Shrew. To clarify: sometimes the characters themselves would be acting. The words and actions of those on stage would not always be genuine. The most obvious example of this comes from the Bianca subplot where many male suitors disguise themselves in order to gain access to her in order to court her. This is a very typical Shakespeare move to use disguises to advance the plot.
Hay and Carlson are both incredibly talented actors and their chemistry is undeniable onstage. They use duplicity to unravel the misogynistic messages that a person can certainly take away from Shrew and replace it with a thrilling love story between two actors (referring to Petruchio and Katherine). The “begun my reign” speech was played by Carlson as an explanation to the audience that he was going to perform as an abusive husband to ‘tame’ her. Considering the limitations of the script, it is a good choice and better than Petruchio being an inherently terrible person but just pretending to be. But sorry Petruchio, acting like an abusive husband is still being an abusive husband. As an audience member though, you sort-of just have to put that aside for the time being.
Then there is Katherine. One of her most defining moments in the show for me was the scene between her and Bianca. She runs around the room terrorizing Bianca by ripping her dress and cutting her hair only to be interrupted by her father. The scene outlines the family dynamic with the father exasperated with Katherine and showing his favour toward Bianca. His clear favouritism toward Bianca is what feeds Katherine’s anger. The expectation is Katherine will misbehave and so she does. But more than depicting Katherine’s shrewish quality, Hay projects Katherine’s loneliness. The shrewish behaviour becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because of the expectations of her family. Plus this scene is fantastic because Deborah Hay is such a queen at physical comedy and then turning a scene around to break your heart.
Another incredibly telling scene for Katherine’s true wants is the wedding when she is devastated when Petruchio arrives late. She does not know if he is coming and is genuinely upset about being stood up by him. Her defence is pushing people away before they push her away. So ‘taming the shrew’ becomes less about behavioural correction and more about breaking down her barriers and insecurities.
The love story between Katherine and Petruchio becomes about two people acting out two extreme characters and their true feelings helping them to meet in the middle. The final scene where Petruchio initiates the bet about who has the best wife seems motivated out of defence of his wife. It is not about him proving the power he has over his wife but his genuine belief in their connection and love. On the other side, Katherine is still motivated by defiance but also by her love. Her final monologue about a woman’s duties could be taken as “ha – I can prove you all wrong and make my husband proud in the process!” Katherine is not ‘tamed’ but finally comfortable showing the world who she could be.
Stratford’s filmed performances are wonderful for many reasons but accessibility is a huge reason. Even with a Play On membership, Stratford shows are expensive. The filmed productions solve both the financial and geographic problems that many people face when attempting to see a quality Shakespeare production from Stratford. It is a great way to market the festival itself and bring the Stratford Festival to people who otherwise may never have heard about it.
Furthermore, archiving plays is incredibly important. Plays are struck and they disappear from our long term history. One of the questions posed to Antoni Cimolino during the forum I attended about the filmed productions was whether Stratford would tend toward doing more traditional productions of Shakespeare since they are attempting to film the entire canon. He answered that this would not be the case which I sincerely appreciate.
The problem with staging and filming only traditional productions is that they become the only versions that exist for viewers. I love Shakespeare but seeing a traditional production of Shakespeare over and over in different venues is not exciting and no way to keep the plays alive. They would become tired and uninteresting. Theatre innovation is what allows Shakespeare to remain relevant to today’s society.
There needs to be variety in what is available because otherwise why bother staging Shakespeare over and over. As a student, I want to see as many interpretations of a play as possible to understand it from different perspectives and create new thoughts. This is my second time seeing a production of The Taming of the Shrew and I have Stratford’s goal of filming the canon of Shakespeare to thank for that.