January 24, 2004: Fletcher, The Tamer Tamed and Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

Royal Shakespeare Company. Matinee and evening. Queens Theatre.

These two productions, in repertory for a season at the Queen’s, are a seldom-paired offering with the same actors in the same roles in both plays, most notably Jasper Britton as Petruchio and Alexandra Gilbreath as Katherine in The Shrew, which must have been still in the repertory of the King’s Men in order for the taming of the tamer, Petruchio, to have a real impact. Fletcher’s writing is at its crispest and most effective in this play. I saw the pair in reverse order of composition. In the evening performance, of The Shrew, Katherine was presented as a mousy, down-at-heels, bedraggled ne’er-do-well whose inner feelings are reached, surprisingly even to herself, by what Petruchio says to her; and what we see is a no-holds-barred defeat of Kate that is enacted as a kind of consciousness-raising of her view of men. Disturbing, but no mincing of words here. The tables are turned remarkably in Fletcher’s play, where Maria, whom Petruchio marries just as the play’s action commences, is a much more attractive, luxuriously red-headed beauty whose will, wit, and determination are more than a match for Petruchio, who is continually bested in his efforts to employ the same strategy on Maria that he used so successfully on his now-deceased wife Kate. It is almost as if the fiction that Fletcher invents as his premise — the death of Kate, from causes unspecified — by merely being stated and left unexplained, suggests that Kate may have died of a broken heart or from simply being worn out. I do wish I had been able to see these two productions in the correct order. Reversing my actual experience mentally, I conclude that the exceedingly drab, threadbare costumes and general dull and depressing mise en scène of The Shrew was intended to play against any humor and sprightliness that might survive in Shakespeare’s text, leaving us with a distinctly somber rendering of an unqual­ifiedly misogynist work. And so, when we come to the Fletcherian turning of the tables, we find distinctly more upbeat action in which the reincarnation of Shakespeare’s Kate in the vibrant, happy Maria, indefatigably resourceful, comes as a surprise and delight.

Of course, the same setting, somewhat reminiscent of a Jacobean public stage, but with movable door frames upstage, along with a proscenium-like door with a balcony above, is used in both productions; but the costumes in the Fletcher have much more color and verve, even though they belong to the same stylistic world as The Shrew.

The two central actors are truly wonderful in their roles, and especially Alexandra Gilbreath, who handles the two central female roles with great aplomb and boundless energy, while differentiating vocally in interesting ways between the two women, unhappy and happy as they are. It is in fact something of a feat for her to do these two roles in repertory, and she had great, warm applause in the calls at the end of both plays.

The production standards were the familiarly high ones of the Royal Shakespeare Company at its best. Gregory Doran, the director of both plays, had very clear ideas of how they should be mounted, as well as of how they needed to be differentiated. The pace is extremely brisk in both, and there is some precisely worked out horseplay in both that helps to carry the farcical spirit of the two plays. And yet they are, finally, far from the simple farces that they could be in the hands of a less skillful and thoughtful director. Doran has sized up the audience situation well. He evidently knows that to try to do an end run around the modern political reverberations of Shakespeare’s play is to court disaster. Nothing for it, he seems to have decided, but to play the action and conclusion of The Shrew straight. The text is what it is. At the same time, he calculatedly comes close to ruining what might have been all the fun of sizing an uppity woman down to submissive stature by cloaking the production in the unremitting drabness of what is, from the standpoint of our view, the worst weather of an English century. We had our self-satisfying fun, all right, on Saturday afternoon, but the clouds gathered and the rain came down incessantly in the evening.



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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