RSC Shrew

Mar. 25th, 2014 08:29 pm
liv: alternating calligraphed and modern letters (letters)
[personal profile] liv
So [personal profile] jack came up this weekend, partly to help me get the flat sorted out and partly because the RSC were visiting to put on a child-friendly performance of The Taming of the Shrew.

Basically, I think Shrew is very near irredeemable. Merchant of Venice and Othello are controversial, but they can be and often are done with the antagonist as a victim of racism as well as a villain. But tTotS is about a woman being punished for being opinionated, which is really hard to make palatable to a modern audience. When we did it at school, Fina Mason directed it, I think rather successfully, as a deeply black comedy, basically a straight-up narrative of Katherine being abused until her spirit was broken. The girl who played the lead actually went on to become a pro actress, and also had lost her best friend in a car accident at around the time we started rehearsing, and pretty much wasn't eating; she made a disturbingly convincing abuse victim. But that's not the kind of thing anyone would pick for a jolly Saturday afternoon's entertainment.

It's also really pretty much the last thing I would have chosen for a "First Encounter" show to edit down and present as a first introduction to Shakespeare for kids. My first reaction when I saw the play advertised was that the play doesn't have a single line that's even PG, let alone suitable for 8-year-olds. Still, the RSC is the RSC and I was kind of intrigued what they'd do with such unpromising material.

In fact what they did was cross-cast it. Which is to say they had male actors playing Katherine and Bianca, and female actors playing all the other roles. But they didn't switch the genders of the characters, the sisters were still sisters and their costumes were dresses, and the male suitors and servants were presented as men with normatively masculine clothes. It wasn't conventional drag either; there was no attempt for the men to adopt female-typical body language and they were not made up or bewigged according to stage conventions of femininity. The only gender change to the script was to make the sisters' father into their mother, like them played by a man in a dress but not particularly in drag. The women's costumes were fairly standard stage-Tudor, whereas the men's were early 20th century style sharp suits, I think partly because Tudor men's clothing doesn't look very masculine to a modern audience.

They cut the script to practically nothing, because once you've removed both the sexual innuendo and the really nasty torture, there really isn't a great deal left. So in some ways the story didn't exactly make sense, there didn't seem to be any very good reason why Katherine was perceived as a "shrew" early on, she was merely a bit shouty rather than actively mean in the way the original character is, and there didn't seem to be very much reason why she underwent the transformation to a docile obedient wife either. Which did leave open the interpretation that she was "tamed" because she really did love Petruchio rather than because he was torturing her and gaslighting her until she would say or do anything to avoid further punishment. It was almost ridiculously wholesome; in spite of the cross-casting the vibe felt not even a tiny bit queer, and there was just nothing that hinted at being knowing or kinky, which are quite common modern interpretations of Shrew.

Part of why it didn't entirely work was that Katy Stephens' Petruchio was weak. She didn't manage to be bombastic or physically imposing, and (especially with so many of her key scenes cut to be child-suitable), she also didn't manage to be cleverly or cruelly manipulative. So it sort of felt as if Petruchio's "taming" scheme mainly involved just behaving a bit randomly until Katherine capitulated or decided to humour him. Forbes Masson's Katherine wasn't as flawed, but I think underlined why Katherine makes almost no sense as a male character. He played her as a shouty Glaswegian who got up in people's faces a lot, but in a man, that isn't really something that would be regarded as a character flaw, certainly not to the point of making him unmarriageable. David Fielder's Baptista skilfully avoided slipping into the comedy tradition of men in drag playing bossy middle-aged women, so the gender switch mainly just pointed up how very few female characters there are in the original!

Lucentio and Tranio absolutely stole the show, Arjani Vasan playing Tranio in disguise as his master being particularly brilliant. All the disguise nonsense with Bianca's suitors is usually fairly bog-standard Shakespearean mistaken identities comedy and pretty much ignorable. But Vasan's body language and physical comedy were just amazing. They very gently underlined the bit where they are supposed to look alike enough to make the switch, just happening to be the only two actors of colour, though as far as one can tell just by looking I would guess from quite different ethnic backgrounds.

So anyway, that was fun. We also managed to finish most of the last bit of sorting out the flat, including acquiring and building a proper wardrobe after my temporary clothes rail collapsed at what was either a really fortunate or really unfortunate moment. My friend GS from shul had come by on Saturday and helped me to put in curtain rails, which was another major step towards making the place liveable. And today I provisionally accepted an offer on my old house. Obviously there's a whole lot that could go wrong between now and actually exchanging, but I am feeling somewhat hopeful that I'm going to be able to move on to the next stage of the plan, the scary stage that involves trying to buy a home in Cambridge...
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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