'Taming of the Shrew' gets the female touch

Two rising female stars of British theatre have chosen to direct Shakespeare's 'Taming of the Shrew' - famous for its misogyny - this spring. Alice Jones finds out why
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At the beginning of this month, Rachel Kavanaugh, 36, was appointed artistic director of the Birmingham Rep - the first woman to take on the role in the theatre's 93-year history. At the end of this month, following a triumphant Phaedra's Love at Bristol Old Vic's Studio and the Barbican Pit, Anne Tipton, 26, winner of the James Menzies-Kitchin award for young directors and former Cameron Mackintosh resident director at Bristol Old Vic will direct her first main-house production.

And the play that both young, successful, female directors have chosen to stage this spring? The Taming of the Shrew - arguably Shakespeare's most misogynistic work.

"No mates for you/ Unless you were of gentler, milder mould." And so the onslaught against headstrong Katherina begins. Hortensio's anti-feminist warning in Act I, Scene 1 sets the tone for the rest of the comedy which requires little directorial moulding to turn it into a full-blown piece of misogyny.

As Petruchio arrives in Padua, with the intention to "wive it wealthily" he sets his sights on the apparently unmarryable Kate. He immediately embarks on a campaign to "curb her mad and headstrong humour" and, by the end of the play he apparently succeeds. In her final speech, the starry-eyed, subservient, newly-wed Kate remonstrates with the other two brides: "I am asham'd 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." It is a plot and a conclusion to rile even the most casual of feminists, so what contemporary relevance can Tipton and Kavanaugh possibly find in play that concludes with a message to women that "our lances are but straws/Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare."

Both directors reject the idea that Shakespeare's play is sexist, and therefore outdated. "I wouldn't be doing it if I thought that," says Kavanaugh firmly. "I don't believe that Petruchio has a game-plan to tame Kate throughout - that's how the play has got its reputation as a piece of misogyny. I think he's an improviser and he's as thrown by her behaviour as she is thrown by his." Tipton concurs, "I think it can be a misogynistic play. Padua is misogynistic but what is ultimately quite feminist about it is that a woman is liberated from that."

Although the two directors will recreate the man's world of Padua in very different locations - Tipton on the hallowed boards of the Bristol Old Vic and Kavanaugh in the leafy expanse of Regent's Park Open Air Theatre at the end of May - their sense of place is strikingly similar. Tipton's Shrew is set in the present day and will have "an Oscar-night feel. These people are very rich and they're watched all the time. It's a very public play." Kavanaugh will set her action in 1930s bourgeois Padua.

"Shakespeare is showing a world in which everyone's roles are prescribed for them. There isn't any social mobility in Padua," says Tipton, who took inspiration for her contemporary approach from overhearing two women on a train condemn female weightlifters at the Commonwealth Games as "unladylike and weird". "These women are not playing the role society asks them to play. Kate isn't playing the dutiful woman like her sister does. They have to label her as something else, so they label her as a shrew."

Kavanaugh agrees, "We're talking about a small town where your reputation can become the reality of your behaviour. If someone tells you that you're a bad girl enough times, you might end up being one. That's my starting point for Kate."

Tipton's production aims to redefine the strictly drawn-up boundaries of Paduan society. For this reason she is keeping the Induction - a short skit before the action proper that is often cut as it introduces the play that follows as a piece of light entertainment for a lord and his attendants. The frequently ignored piece of comedy is crucial to Tipton's concept of the play as a beggar is tricked into thinking that he is a lord. "Shakespeare immediately shows you that the clothes do not make the man and that you will become whatever society tells you you can become."

Petruchio - who could be played as a money-grubbing, chauvinist bully - is, for Tipton, a "maverick" who plays with prescribed roles and teaches Kate to do the same. The breakthrough comes in Act IV Scene 5 when Petruchio persuades Kate that the sun is in fact the moon.

Kate seizes upon this and repeats the game with a passing stranger. "Petruchio takes Kate away in this very obscure, eccentric way and teaches her that she can be anything she wants to be and that Padua need not prescribe her role for her. In the sun and moon scene two people stand on stage and prescribe a new world to the point where the sun becomes the moon and a man becomes a woman."

Kavanaugh sees it, more simply, as a "very, very romantic play, one of the great love stories about two people on the very edges of their worlds finding some kind of moderate behaviour through falling profoundly in love." She argues that Kate believes that she is "unlovable", a tragic, spinsterish older sister who is a burden to her father and sister. "She's fought back against this feeling of 'unlovability' and she's gone too far."

Petruchio is similarly damaged - his father has just died and he feels alone in the world. "What they both understand by the end of the play is that love makes you want to do things for somebody else and gives you respect for other people and makes you want to behave well," says Kavanaugh, "I hope it could be very moving."

But the romance has its limits. "At the end of the play, of the three marriages we see, the only one that I would hold out any hope for would be Kate and Petruchio's," says Kavanaugh bluntly. "Bianca and Lucentio are going to have a right old time as are Hortensio and the widow. They're in love with the idea of the other person whereas Kate and Petruchio have really seen the insides of the other person."

Both Tipton and Kavanaugh hope to bring nuance to a play too frequently played for bawdy, sexist laughs. "It's very easy to make an archetypal shrew," muses Tipton, who has toned down Kate's violent outbursts and spikiness a little to produce a character who is "just a rather hurt product of her world".

Although Tipton calls herself a feminist, neither director has fallen into the trap of political correctness, taking instead the approach of a sympathetic shrink. Kavanaugh sums up, "I'm excited by the idea that I can do this play as a woman and not be saying it's about female oppression but actually it's a play about emotional liberation."

'The Taming of the Shrew', Old Vic, Bristol (0117-987 7877) 28 April to 27 May; and Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London NW1 (0870 060 1811) in rep 29 May to 2 September