The return of the Shrew

An impossible play for our times or just a love story? Clare Bayley meets two actresses taking on The Taming of the Shrew
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The Independent Culture
What's this? Two Shrews opening within a week of each other? In 1995? Surely some mistake. This is the play that Lisa Jardine, Professor of English at the University of London, used to use as an example of an impossible play, because although in Shakespeare's time the domestication of an outspoken woman by violence, starvation and sleep deprivation might have been considered an acceptable topic for a comedy, these days it isn't. It's a play that many actresses, notably Fiona Shaw (who played Kate as a damaged child in Jonathan Miller's RSC production), have found almost overwhelmingly difficult to square with their own consciences. Yet now both Josette Simon and Josie Lawrence are entering the fray, in Leicester and Stratford respectively.

"Every now and then I have to take a very deep breath," admits Gale Edwards, who persuaded Josie Lawrence to play the Shrew in Stratford. She has gone for the comedy angle in casting Lawrence, doyenne of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and the comedy Outside Edge. Lawrence has said, "My Kate is neither submissive nor feminist. I never go for anything as a comedy, I do things as real and the comedy comes out of that. But with Kate it's the woman's wit that I love."

Her director is more cautious in her approach. "We have to face up to the fact that at the end of the play a woman is going to stand on stage and give a three-minute speech about obedience, subservience and love. In the Nineties, it's not easy to ignore these things."

In Leicester, the Romanian director Mihai Maniutiu (whose Richard III toured Britain to great acclaim last year) has no such qualms. For him the play is straightforward. "It's a love story," he says. What! A love story about a man beating his wife into submission? "I'll answer you very simply," he says. "In every play there is an apparent reality, and what I call the Real Thing. If you say this is a cruel play, you are seeing only the apparent reality, the surface of things. For me, this kind of love story always has a dimension of cruelty. A man and a woman need to play games, and sometimes the games are cruel, it is like a mountain to climb in order to reach something like recognition. Then it is real love."

You might think that an actress of Josette Simon's intelligence, talent and temperament might find this a trifle hard to take, but she stoutly defends her director. "Of course it's a minefield of difficulty, in all sorts of ways, but I like challenges," she laughs. "Mihai is absolutely innovative and inspirational. For some reason, however wild his ideas, I can always see his point. And it is a love story. Here is a person who is unloved and worthless in her world, dismissed by everyone - nobody takes her on, nobody asks why she's like that. Then somebody, Petruchio, comes along and takes her on.

"Kate is a very angry person, that is a very important fact about her. Angry people, especially women, provoke hostile reactions in people. The fact that Petruchio is not put off by that is one thing in his favour.He provides her with an outlet for her anger. She speaks. And he listens."

The fact remains, as Edwards has said, that at the end of the play Kate has to publicly demonstrate her subservience: "I am ashamed that women are so simple / To offer war where they should kneel for peace / Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway / When they are bound to serve, love, and obey."

While Josette Simon plans to negotiate this treacherous speech with a fair dose of irony, Edwards employs a "concept" to provide some distance from the unpalatable message of the play.

Where Maniutiu has dispensed with the play's Induction, Edwards' production keeps it in. Here, a drunken tinker, Sly, harasses a hostess, falls asleep in her house, is tricked by her husband and other lords into believing he is an aristocrat, and watches The Taming of the Shrew performed to him by travelling players. "Obviously no one is interested in a deeply feminist, editorialised version of the Shrew," Edwards says cheerfully. "But when the aristocrats seduce Sly into the idea of changing his identity, it introduces a series of changes of identity: Lucentio changes his identity with his master, Hortensio changes his identity into a schoolmaster, Petruchio tries to change Kate's identity. `Who am I?' becomes a recurring theme." The play then becomes Sly's dream, Sly becomes Petruchio, the dream becomes a nightmare, and finally a morality tale.

But if all these mental contortions have to take place in order to stage Shakespeare's "difficult" plays for contemporary audiences, would it be better just to leave them well alone? Professor Jardine thinks not. "It's troubling that we all so comfortably believe that taming difficult women is historically unspecific, whereas everyone recognises, say, Jew-baiting in The Merchant of Venice as horribly specific to certain political configurations and historical times. But I do think we should go on trying. In two recent productions - Peter Sellars's and Peter Hall's (with Dustin Hoffman) - the directors really made a good struggle with The Merchant. If we can struggle with the plays in times when it might be considered not politically correct to do so, we can keep them alive for the future."

Perhaps it becomes easier to tackle this play as relations between men and women in contemporary society become more equal. Unexpectedly, there is one question on which both the current productions agree: that it is a love story. "A perverse love story," says Josette Simon; "an unorthodox love story," says Gale Edwards; but a love story none the less.

n `The Taming of the Shrew' opens tomorrow at the RSC in Stratford-upon- Avon, starring Josie Lawrence (box-office: 01789 205301), and previews at the Leicester Haymarket from tomorrow, starring Josette Simon (box- office: 0116 253 9797)