Directed by Damien Ryan
Sport for Jove Theatre
York Theatre, Seymour Centre
Corner of City Road and Cleveland Street, Chippendale
Season: 19 – 28 May
Could Shakespeare have been an unwitting feminist before the existence of the social movement? I think many of us would like to think so given the abundance of progressive interpretations of his text on the stage. Either that, or he’s a misogynist through and through, unable to transcend the paradigms of his time. He wouldn’t be the only one. The Taming of the Shrew poses an interesting challenge to these ideas and Sport for Jove grapples with them on the stage in rousing/a spate of/ hilarity. The comedy under Damien Ryan’s direction rouses laughter consistently throughout, and yet also manages to make marked points about the patriarchy’s insistent attempt to tame women into submissive objects. Displaying this dexterous comedic flair alongside poignant insight makes for a sating combination indeed.
For those who need a quick plot reference, the Heath Ledger classic 10 Things I Hate About You is adapted from The Taming of the Shrew. However Ledger makes for a far sweeter ‘tamer’ than Petruchio, when you actually stay true to Shakespeare’s text. A man has two daughters, the eldest is Katharina (or Kate) and the younger is Bianca. The beautiful and charming Bianca has innumerable suitors, but the Father insists she may not be married before Katharina. In amongst cross-dressing and cunning ruses for the suitors to get close to Bianca, Petruchio is enlisted to take Kate’s hand in marriage, so that Bianca can in turn be married off to the winning suitor. Petruchio does so, and proceeds to ‘tame’ Kate, by taking her away from her home and starving her of food and sleep. Kate finally returns to see her father, as Petruchio’s obedient and submissive wife.
Ryan has opted to place the story in a new setting – in the burgeoning silent film era. This is a delightful choice, allowing for more room to breathe fresh comedy into an inherently funny work. It also serves as a more relatable parallel, bringing the tale into more recent years. Lizzie Schebesta plays Bianca with poise and ridiculous beauty. But Schebesta’s Bianca is more than a pretty face, as she sword fights and wields a gun with spunk. Danielle King is a viciously independent Kate, in this version also a pilot – the perfect appropriation of role through time and place. King takes the stage like a whirlwind, rue anything in her path. If a shrew is a noisy woman, King finds opportunities for noise wherever she can, vocally and physically – and yet the text disappoints, offering Kate limited dialogue. Does the text partake in silencing the shrew from the beginning? A welcome change by Ryan is the transformation of male characters to female characters, hereby offering more opportunities for female actors where opportunity is due. Eloise Winestock does a wonderful job as Tania (originally Tranio) instigating great laughter as she dresses up in masculine clothing, attempting to pass off as a man to aid Lucentio’s wooing of Bianca. Likewise, Christopher Stalley plays Lucentio with such a good grasp of comedy, this pair don’t miss a beat. Comic timing is exceptional throughout the whole cast, what a delight for audiences.
The content of Katharina’s final speech is grating to the ear. Notions of a wife’s obedience and unquestioning loyalty to her husband seem to diminish a wife’s personal autonomy and authority in a relationship. King says the speech sincerely – and this positively irked me whilst I was watching. After such a fantastic show, how could it be concluded so anticlimactically, and counter-intuitively? The speech, and King’s choice to perform it in such an earnest way, seemed to undermine the rest of the play’s interpretation. And yet, after disgruntled foyer conversations and a few days of thought, I realised I was the one who was missing the point. The interpretation that Ryan and King take with the play holistically, and in this particular speech, is very brave. Do women have the fight stomped out of them when they’ve been worn down by incessant sexism? Does Katharina consider her relationship with Petruchio a game, one that is ultimately advantageous to lose? Is this a dismal reminder of where we’ve come from as a Western society, and a hint that little may have changed? It is provocative, because it doesn’t give audiences what they intuitively want. And that is vastly more satisfying.
Sport for Jove don’t just perform the text, they present an interpretation in the midst of theatrical spectacle. Anna Gardiner’s production design evolves to complement the gamut of setting in continually exciting ways, allowing the actors’ performances to be grounded in an actualised representation of setting. Music is enlisted to evoke emotion with great success, audiences are transported across land and sea. The comedy in the show is impeccable and yet its themes intentionally perplex and hence provoke. I am astounded at the abundance of methods Ryan uses to wholly engage audiences, make them feel things, entertain them, and make pointed comments about the society we live in. It’s a tour de force.