"As Maria, I get to tame him," says actress Alexandra Gilbreath of her role as Petruchio's wife in The Tamer Tamed, a play by John Fletcher written in Shakespeare's own lifetime, in response to his The Taming of the Shrew. "Can you imagine? You've got this extraordinary, great playwright who everyone knows about, and then this little upstart comes along and writes the sequel."
Gilbreath gets to play the two very different wives of Petruchio - the subservient Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and the feisty Maria in Fletcher's play - as the Royal Shakespeare Company mounts a double bill of performances.
The Taming of the Shrew is infamous for Kate's utter submission to Petruchio's will by the play's end, but in The Tamer Tamed Maria takes hold of the reins. She does this largely by denying her husband conjugal rights and then threatening to leave him if he dares hit her - as well as ignoring his attempts at softening her up with his self-pity. Gilbreath says that playing the feisty Maria acts as a counterweight to playing Kate: "It means you don't have to make elaborate apologies for The Taming of the Shrew; you can just do it because you know there is also The Tamer Tamed as a flip side."
There are certainly some forward-thinking moments. "Namely, right at the end," says Gilbreath. "I step forward and say, 'Men and women should live together in equality,' which for something written 400 years ago is really quite amazing. Especially after you have had this very famous speech in The Taming of the Shrew when Kate tells the audience that women should be obedient.
"The problem with doing Shrew is that when Kate speaks at the end we think she is talking for all women, but she's not. I don't think you are meant to agree with it. She is speaking on behalf of herself. She loves her husband Petruchio so much that she is 'prepared to put her hand under his foot'."
Nevertheless, Gilbreath confesses that her role as Kate has caused heated discussions among some of her friends. "When they come and watch me play Kate, they are always split as to whether she is actually a subservient doormat or just really very safe and comfortable because she is truly loved. I mean, I don't agree with it, but Kate is happy for the first time in her life. You have to remember that The Taming of the Shrew is a genuine love story."
These RSC productions were first seen last March at Stratford-upon-Avon, and are directed by Gregory Doran. The production is designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, the music is by Paul Englishby, movement by Michael Ashcroft and sound by Martin Slavin. The 24-strong company will be led by Jasper Britton as Petruchio.
But how difficult is it playing the two wives? "I love playing Maria, but Kate is more painful to play," says Gilbreath, whose previous RSC credits include Rosalind in As You Like It and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. "Maria doesn't have any self-doubt and is confident enough to go and get what she wants, whereas Kate is more vulnerable and unsure. But I don't ever get confused because the language of the two plays is quite different."
'The Taming of the Shrew' and 'The Tamer Tamed', Queen's Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 (0870 890 1110), from 15 January for seven weeks onlyReuse content