Tamings

Wed 9th – Sat 12th May 2012

reviews

Yara Rodrigues Fowler

at 09:26 on 10th May 2012

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This play is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, because it combines the familiar, if slightly disquieting, Shakespearean comedy ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ with a provocative and radical ‘response’ play, in which the ‘tamer’ Petruchio essentially has his wedding-night privileges withheld until he is himself ‘tamed’. And secondly, because this quite radical ‘response’ (John Fletcher’s ‘Tamer Tamed’) was written only 10 years after Shakespeare’s original, the two being, according to the show’s programme, often performed together to Jacobean audiences. In fact, they apparently preferred Fletcher to Shakespeare.

The direction and costume was such that the two plays were distinct in era and atmosphere, ‘Taming of the Shrew’ taking place in the 1950s, ‘Tamer Tamed’ in the revolutionary 1960s. Each was accompanied by projections of tongue-in-cheek magazine covers and photos from the appropriate decade, the highlights of which include, respectively, ‘Wife Dressing: the fine art of being a well-dressed wife’ and ‘Welcome to the Miss America cattle auction’. The costume design made a significant leap between the two, and it is clear that some fun was had getting the mini-dresses and skirts together for the 1960s portion of the performance. The 1950s half was more lacklustre, perhaps intentionally, although - crucially - it lacked aesthetic cohesion - both the costumes and the props used felt blank and less visually, historically communicative. (However, I recognise that the play will have been constrained by budget.) Perhaps for this reason, the play got off to a stilted start, which happily turned out to be unrepresentative of its overall quality. Once the slightly awkward over-annunciation that plagues even professional productions of Shakespeare settled, engaging and often entertaining dynamics emerged. For example, when the old man Bincentio (Peter Van Dolen) is confronted with another character impersonating himself, and is subsequently sent to jail for insisting too honestly upon his identity. (Special mention should here be made of the authenticity of Dolen’s beard. It is impressive.)

There were many notable performances and scenes; the cast as a whole made good use of Fletcher and Shakespeare’s shared love of disguise and dramatic irony. Both Katerina (Annecy Atlee) and Maria (Imogen O’Sullivan), respectively Petruchio’s shrew and the tamer, were moving and role-appropriate, so as to give a complementary effect, although O’Sullivan achieved a greater range of tone - comic, tragic, stoic, witty - given her material. Rowland (Alex Stutt) the ‘puppy love’ suitor of the second half was highly entertaining and Petruchio maintained a credible personality, upheld by his solid soliloquies, throughout.

The directors’ (Alex Brinkman Young and Victoria Empson) choice to emphasise Petruchio’s violence and the coercion of Katerina’s marriage to him was successful, in particular the scene of his ‘wooing’ where he straddles her forcibly and physically harasses her; Katerina’s transformation being sufficiently ambiguously to allow for the plausibility of her eventual ‘taming’. The romance and duplicity of the secret wooing of Bianca (Bria Thomas) by her ‘tutor’ (in fact a suitor from Pisa) was likewise well-handled - providing comic and romantic closure for those members of the audience left feeling uneasy by Petruchio’s breaking of Katerina’s rebellious spirit by starvation and other deprivations.

The problems more or less inherent in piecing together plays whose plot-lines can only achieve rough symmetry because one was written by a certain William Shakespeare and the other by John Fletcher, the latter moreover having written a ‘response’ rather than a ‘sequel’, were adeptly, although not seamlessly, surmounted. For example, the discrepancy in the quality of the poetry of the two plays, although indisguisable, was more or less reconciled by the quality of their respective performance and portent. The absolute and collective rejection by women conceived of by a male playwright in the 18th Century, of a marriage state in anyway oppressive of their ‘freedom’ - in particular whilst exemplifying their intellectual reason and cunning - was more uplifting to watch than Katrina’s, equally moving, suggestion ‘ place your hands below your husband’s foot’. In ‘Tamer Tamed’, the historical and social distance of ‘Taming of the Shrew’ is bridged.

‘Tamings’ does not grapple with, but performs Shakespeare to an impressive and highly watchable standard. Its use of Fletcher’s somewhat less skillfully crafted script shows evidence of some skillful crafting of their own. The combination provides a curious contextual insight to Shakespeare’s play, and a surprising, happy, historical reflection of early Jacobean gender politics - where a wife might announce to her husband “I stand for freedom” and women might righteously reject violence in marriage entirely.

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Daniel Malcolm

at 10:22 on 10th May 2012

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Tamings follows Two Gents last week in focusing on Shakespeare's misogyny. This production juxtaposes Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shew with Fletcher's response written ten years later, The Tamer Tamed. Fletcher's play sees Petruchio - tamer of a shrewish wife in the Shakespeare play - himself tamed by his next wife, Maria.

In the programme, the directors implicitly endorse Fletcher's play as the more enlightened, and perhaps even the better. They present The Tamer Tamed as representative of a cultural shift - a Jacobean challenge to the patriarchal dominance of Elizabethean society - their justification for setting the play in another era of sexual revolution 60s.

And if the programme doesn't set the feminist scene clearly enough, then a sequence of humourously chauvinistic 60s adverts (my favourite a Delmonte bottle with the caption: "even a woman can open it") provocatively foreground the sexual issues and agenda.

Strange then that The Taming of the Shrew is played ironically, seemingly undercutting the misogyny in Shakespeare to which Fletcher's play responds. The mercurial Petruchio (the tamer), doesn't just psychologically war upon his wife; he is a wife-beater as well as a wife-breaker. Even before marrying Katherina he is physically and sexually dominant, straddling her high-sixties-denim-waistline as she lies pinned to the floor. Throughout Ben Cohen (Petruchio) is more impressive for his forcefulness and madness, than by his conspiratorial asides; indeed, though the contrast between the calmly-scheming and violently-playing-acting Petruchio was a times striking, the two sides of Petruchio were not always distinguished as carefully as they might have been, both intentionally and because of the odd lapse in execution. Fits of feigned rage, sometimes breathlessly spilled over into the suavely-calculating side of the character. There is no sense then in which we collude with the Petruchio in his abusive breaking-in of his "chattel". Conversely, the shrew, Kiss-me-kate-Katherina, is very sympathetically cast as a rebellious 60s teenager. And her closing speech, superficially an exhibition of her subjection and the physical inferiority of women, is brilliantly played as embittered lip-service by a woman physically beaten but mentally defiant.

After this it's not as though we need Fletcher's play, with its moralising conclusion about 'equality in love', to redress the sexual balance. The almost Aristophanic rebellion of the women against their husbands, is good fun, and cleverly-staged; but the women's over-indulgence in sassy-gloating - makes them appear comic rather than revolutionary. There is a lack of restraint too in Imogen O'Sullivan's performance as Maria (Petruchio's second wife), which makes the sexual-inversion seem more like a frivolous game, to be enjoyed while it lasts. Strangely then Shakespeare's play comes out almost more convincingly feminist than Fletcher's.

I have focused on the relationship of Petruchio and his wives almost exclusively, not only because that's what the setting, and juxtaposition invite; the talent of Cohen and Attlee (Petruchio and Katherine) also overshadow that of the rest of the cast. The enamoured lovers Lucentio and Roland, provide some light-entertainment - the latter played by Alex Stutt, portraying an ah-inducing sweetheart - but this romance seems little more than a side-show.

For a conceptually-motivated production, Tamings is disappointingly conceptually incoherent. The focus on sexual-politics reduced both plays to a one-dimensional marathon and yet the finest moments of the plays ironise the very misogyny that Tamings promises to showcase. Tamings confused me more than subdued me.

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