First published in 1623, after Shakespeare’s death in 1616 (but performed many times during his lifetime) The Taming of the Shrew is one of his comedic best with intertwining sub-plots, mistaken identities, romance, passion, sharp and witty humour, and a complexity of characters, whose transformations we can enjoy over and over again.
Montreal’s Repercussion Theatre‘s Shakespeare-in-the-Park tour presents a “Fellini-esque” re-imagining of play directed by Andrew Shaver and Paul Hopkins. Presented at various parks in and around Montreal from July 11 to August 5, 2012.
Before the play, Nino Rota’s soundtrack to Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 sets the mood for the actors opening with a song in Italian, lead by Davide Chiazzese, who plays Baptista. We see a parade of all the main characters on stage, reminiscent of the final scene of 8 1/2, before the action of the play begins and we are introduced to Lucentio (played by Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski) and Tranio (played by Jeff Ho).
Both the leads Kirsten Rasmussen (Katharina) and Alex McCooeye (Petruchio) are power-houses and give the play incredible energy. They command the audience’s attention from the moment they step onto the stage, until their final musical duet in Italian. Their fights and exchanges are delightful:
KATHARINA: Gentlemen, forward tot he bridal dinner.
I see a woman may be made a fool.
If she had not a spirit to resist.
Matt Gagnon, who plays Petruchio’s servant Gremio, steals the show on several occasions with his exceptional wit, timing, sound-effect, and understated comedic genius.
PETRUCHIO: Think you a little din can daunt mine ears?
Have I not in my time heard lions roar?
Have I not heard the sea, puff’d up with winds,
Rage like an angry boar chafed with sweat?
Have I not heard great ordnance in the field,
And heaven’s artillery thunder in the skies?
Have I not in a pitched battle heard
Loud ‘larums, neighing steeds, and trumpets’ clang?
And do you tell me of a woman’s tongue,
That gives not half so great a blow to hear
As will a chestnut in a farmer’s fire?
Tush, tush! fear boys with bugs.!
The costumes, designed by the very talented Susana Vera, skilfully combine Fellini-chic with Elizabethan touches and colour-code the families to keep the various disguised characters visually and narratively clear. Katharina’s wedding dress is a masterpiece! And so are Petruchio’s sunglasses and pink socks. But perhaps a comedic opportunity was missed when Kate arrives at Petruchio’s home after an incredibly hard journey and her costume is still in-tact:
GRUMIO: First, know my horse is tired, my master and mistress fallen out.
GRUMIO: Out of their saddles into the dirt, and thereby hangs a tale. [...] We came down a foul hill, my master riding behind my mistress. [...] Her horse fell and she under her horse [...] he left her with the horse upon her, how he beat me because her horse stumbled, she waded through the dirt to pluck him off me, how he swore, how she prayed that never prayed before, how I cried, how the horses ran away, how her bridle was burst, how I lost my crupper…
While joyfully entertaining, the play’s last scene, and particularly Katharina’s final speech leaves a slightly bitter after-taste for everyone with gender-equality sensibility.
KATHARINA: Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow,
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor:
It blots thy beauty as frosts do bite the meads
Confounds thy fame as whirlwinds shake fair buds,
And in no sense is meet or amiable.
A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
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.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband’s foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease.
While it is certainly delightful to watch the taming of Kate’s shrewness and the comedy that it provokes, the two (male) directors chose to leave Shakespeare’s final scene unchanged, while taking artistic liberties with injecting other dialogues with modern references to art works, inside jokes with the audience, Italian songs, Fellini-inspired humour, etc. Would it be too much to ask to modernize the final speech and update it like the costumes and the music? Why do we celebrate daring aesthetic changes in adaptations, but stay far away from the political ones?