Making a merry jest of Shrew’s misogyny
Shakespeare’s early ‘screwball’ comedy, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, is one of his most popular and controversial – so can an all-female cast take the edge of its sexism
That’s probably not why the Globe is touring the production in the UK and as far afield as Malta, Austria and Hong Kong and marketing it as “an outrageous comedy” featuring “one of the theatre’s great screwball double-acts”. Murphy’s production is, like many outdoor Shakespeare productions, a brisk and limpid entertainment, guided by live music and song, daubed with seemingly random regional accents and a hotchpotch of 20th-century fashions that suggest a tornado in the costume department. There are broad sight gags and merry anachronisms, such as a tutor who returns from a music lesson with a guitar smashed over his head, or a starving Kate taunted with a Pepperami.
It is a production that knows its audience and the light entertainment demands of summertime, whether or not the material supports it. The audience whoop early on when Kate kisses Petruchio passionately, and the actor Kate Lamb acknowledges it with a wry smile. They whoop when she submits to her husband’s will some time later (“the moon changes even as your mind”), and again when another woman defies her husband’s orders. Perhaps they see the play as a far-fetched gag belonging to a distant era. Perhaps they are amused by the frisson of cross-casting. Perhaps they just like whooping.
“I think what Shakespeare does, which is quite clever in the play, is to wrap up a tragedy within a comedy,” says Murphy. “You were concerned about the applause, but it sells itself as a comedy quite strongly from the beginning. If the play had finished just before the wedding, they actually seem quite good for each other. He’s rescuing her from the crazy patriarchal society she’s living in. But because Petruchio is so ingrained in that patriarchal society, he has no concept of love other than obedience and ownership. What could have been a beautiful relationship just sours and sours until the final speech.”
In Katherina’s final subjugation, delivered on the point of tears by Lamb, Petruchio recognises that he has destroyed the spirit he once loved. In Murphy’s version, as in Bogdanov’s, Kate lunges to kiss Petruchio’s foot and he withdraws it, horrified. It’s a startling gesture, yet one that seems to conclude the play as the tragedy of a man: the shaming of Petruchio.
It is nonetheless surprising that the female ensemble neither seems to imitate male behaviour (as Edward Hall’s all-male Shakespeare company, Propeller, does with female roles) nor make male characters appear female.
Everything seems oddly neutral, as though trying to avoid any further comment. “If you’re just going to mimic the other gender, why not cast men?” says Murphy. “To have a female perspective on what those men are is an interesting way to pull apart this play. I guess we’re also trying to honour the fact that misogyny is still very much present. I think it’s an attempt to celebrate how far we’ve come, to say that we’ve got farther to go, and to allow a company of women to own that.”
Murphy, who is also the artistic director of the new writing company Nabakov, admits he was slow to impose any particular slant on Shrew, the first classic play he has directed in a fast-developing career. “It’s a really complex play and far be it for me to say what Shakespeare was or wasn’t saying,” he says.