Thursday 25th May: The Taming of the Shrew

This year’s production of The Taming of the Shrew by the International Theatre Company London was a great success here at Jogakuin University, Hiroshima.

Every May the International Theatre Company tours Japan performing a Shakespeare play and of the three I have seen (Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, The Taming of the Shrew) this one was by far the best so perhaps the director, Paul Stebbings, has learned from his previous experience in presenting the complexities of a Shakespeare play to a Japanese audience.

I felt that his decision to produce King Lear with a young cast of just seven actors last year was problematic and the Japanese students who I talked to who had seen the play said that even after preparing for the play by studying the plot and the main themes and characters of the play beforehand, they were still very confused by who was who in Spedding’s production as the actors had frequently to change roles while other roles were merged or cut up and subsumed by other characters according to necessity.

Another problem with the production of King Lear was that there was not enough attention to costume so that there was little in what an actor was wearing to distinguish one character from another. This simply adds to the confusion in a play in which some of the main characters assume disguise as part of the plot!

Furthermore, on a pretty bare stage with a small cast, one or two of whom may at any time be engaged with the musical side of the performance, the court of King Lear never amounted to very much so you never felt he had very far to fall!

Finally, of course, the demands of tragedy, particularly a tragedy like Lear, or Richard II, are such that they militate against easy comprehension by an audience whose actual comprehension of standard modern English may be less than one would desire. In these tragedies the protagonist loses power early in the play and so his field of action is greatly reduced and this limitation is compensated for by his engagement in a poetic search for meaning. In short, Lear or Richard role becomes thoroughly rhetorical and the language of both these fallen kings is poetic, rich and complex.

In short, much of last year’s production of King Lear went straight over the heads of many in the audience.

This year’s production, The Taming of the Shrew, however, was a hit with the Japanese audience as well as the foreigners sat amongst them and it is not difficult to discover why that was so.

Firstly, although most of the audience didn’t seem to realize it, the action began before the beginning of the play (so there was a kind of induction to the Induction as well as a play within a play).

What happened was that an English football supporter was prowling around among the audience making a bit of a drunken nuisance of himself. He was wearing an England shirt with “Beckham” on the back and pushed his way passed several demure young Japanese ladies to bag an empty seat right in the middle of their row. And then – horror of horrors!! – he began talking to them in an embarrassingly loud voice while brandishing a can of beer:

“Shakespeare isn’t the most famous Englishman. Do you know who the most famous Englishman is…? It isn’t Shakespeare… It’s… (pointing to the back of his shirt) BECKHAM!”

A bit later, the cry of “ROOONEYYYY!” filled the hall. Most people dutifully tried to ignore his antics. He wandered off and picked on another set of victims and gradually elicited a few irritated hisses from various Japanese who must have felt that this typical England supporter – hoorigan – was about to spoil the show. It was not only the Japanese who were taken in, however. I was amused to see a certain colleague of mine, whose hair turns purple when the sun shines on it, screw his head around and give off various signs of disapproval.

Our football hooligan next sat himself near the front and noisly chatted to his chosen victim. An introductory speech was made by one of the specially groomed senior girls who was, the audience was informed by our football hooligan “a bit of alright!”

The next shocker for the audience was when our football hooligan got up, gave his can to a girl and said “hold that darling” and climbed up the steps at the front of the stage…

… and spoke the drunkard Christopher Sly’s first lines.

You could hear from various parts of the audience “Oohhhhh he is actor!”

The stating of the bleeding obvious is one of the great “Japanese traditional” cultural art forms.

Anyway, because it is plot driven and a bit shallow on characterization, The Taming of the Shrew was ideal for a Japanese audience.

The framing of one play by another was also well taken. Speddings made the correct decision of adding the end of another, similar play (The Taming of A Shrew) to the end of Shakespeare’s text, and then a coda onto that. By setting the Induction in modern times and the taming of the shrew play-within-a-play back in Renaissance Italy Speddings was able to convey the shift from the one to the other clearly and successfully.

It was also interesting to see Christopher Sly portrayed as a modern football supporter who encounters the city slickers who are keen on fox hunting. The references to contemporary English concerns were touched on very lightly.

In this production the play within the play was not presented to Sly by the Lord as a cure for his “madness” but rather it was Sly’s dream in which he dreams that he is Petruchio (and therefore the same actor plays both roles). This immediately solves two problems, one of stage management and the other to do with right-on presentational concerns.

If Sly is dreaming the taming of the shrew then he can disappear from the stage as can the Lord and his servants – none of them has to pretend to serve sly at all.

Moreover, if the story of the taming of the shrew is Sly’s dream then it can be portrayed as one unreconstructed male’s fantasy of how he would like things to be between the sexes. The fact that at the end of the play there is a little coda in which Sly is carried home for punishment by his terrifying wife merely reinforces the point and keeps Speddings in with the politically correct. It must be admitted, however, that if there really were any worries about the “incorrectness” of the play they did not show during the boistrous and entertaining performance.

This year, who was who was clearly delineated by the costumes. The play was intelligently cut down so that the six actors were each able to play a range of clearly delineated characters. Furthermore, when a character adopted a disguise, he remained in his original costume, enough of which could be seen to make it obvious to all but the densest among the audience who was who… The disguises of Lucentio and Hortensio were carried off with amusing buffoonery, while the whole Tranio sub-plot was ditched altoghether; a bit of a pity, but a necessary concession to the size of the cast.

Speddings gave the performance further clarity by developing hints from the source material that Petruchio had been a soldier or a pirate. There was a comic “sea battle” in which the ship he and his thick sidekick are on gets sunk by the Turk. They then wash up in Padua (up the river probably) and come ashore penniless – hence his need for a quick marriage to a rich lady…

The military theme was continued when Petruchio went off with Kate – not to his house, as in Shakespeare’s original – but to his military camp, manned by the thickest of the thick, one of whom was afflicted with a speech impediment that absolutely killed the audience. Nice one Speddings!

The tempo was maintained by the music and acapela performances of the cast. On the language front, comprehension was assisted by gesture on the one hand and by dutiful cutting or substitution on the other. Thus, when Kate is being starved, she does not long for a neat’s foot but for a “pig’s leg” or a “sausage”…

The cast came across much more strongly this year. Two of the cast returned from last year’s Lear production. Robin Armstrong played Edgar last year and Petruchio this year and this year’s performance was much more robust and virile than I had expected, I am pleased to say.
Rick Clodfelter played Gloucester last year and Baptista this – he is the company’s “old man” it would seem!

The women put in much stronger performances this year than ever before. The contrast in character between Kate and Bianca was well delineated – and went beyond the dark looks of Kate being set off against the blond Bianca. Kate’s transition from shrew to witty, playful and obedient wife was well negotiated and there was no sense at all at the end that we had a crushed woman on our hands and that positive conclusion is surely faithful to the original text.

Anyway, after the play the ladies in my company all played prim and proper and went home to their various husbands, were were led to believe, while Doctor Mogami, Mr Kurasuda and myself headed off to an izakaya in Hachobori where we supped and drank and chewed the fat about Shakespeare, and eventually about the war and in particular about Yamashita, the Lion of Singapore…

David Hurley