In June 2016, we went to see an all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew, as part of the Public Theatre’s annual free “Shakespeare in the Park,” which has been going on almost as long as I’ve been alive. I just finished watching Jessica Jones season three, which made me think of Jessica Jones season two, which guest-starred Janet McTeer as Jessica’s mother. McTeer played Petruchio in this production of Taming, and I went to re-read my review and realized it was on the old LiveJournal. So now here it is on the new blog…..
Yesterday, our friend Laura, who’s visiting for a few days, joined me and Wrenn in Central Park to see The Taming of the Shrew at the Delacorte Theatre, the first of two plays being done this year for the free Shakespeare in the Park put on by the Public Theatre. (The other will be Troilus and Cressida. The theme this year, based on the signage around the park, is WAR! LOVE! Which both fit both plays, actually…..)
The last time I saw Shrew in the park was in 1990, when Morgan Freeman and Tracey Ullman played Petruchio and Kate, with Helen Hunt playing Bianca. It was set as a Western, but without changing any dialogue — so it opened with a guy with white hair and a white beard doing his best Walter Brennan impersonation drawling, “Waylcome to Pad-yoo-uh!”
Now I should state for the record that I despise this play. I mean, it’s not Shakespeare’s fault, his theme of wives being subject to their husbands was the morality of the day. But I find it painful to watch, generally, and have found that the most interesting ones are the modern interpretations that try to subvert it.
The production we saw yesterday took an interesting tack: the entire cast was female. Reversing the norms of Shakespeare’s day, when all the parts were played by men, this was a fascinating choice, made more so by the framing sequence setting it up as a beauty pageant (complete with Donald Trump-style voiceover — references to Hillary Clinton and #Brexit snuck in at various points, too), with Bianca and Kate competing in a contest as Miss North Padua and Miss South Padua. (Director Phyllida Lloyd has previously done all-female versions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV.)
This version took the tactic of having Kate give in to Petruchio’s torments, not because she was being broken by him (which is the standard interpretation), but because agreeing with him got him to actually do stuff. But Cush Jumbo’s Kate never at any point is cowed, just frustrated — until the end.
The ending is the biggest problem. Up through Bianca’s wedding, Kate is resigned, but not broken. However, when Petruchio makes his wager that his wife will be the most obedient of the three at the wedding, and Kate gives her appalling speech about how women must always serve their men, the wind comes out of the sails, because Kate has stopped being defiant. A production that has been aggressively defiant up to this point, that has taken a distinctively modern (from the 1940s fashions to the 1970s beauty pageant to the 2010s attitudes and gestures and speech patterns overlaid over some of the Elizabethan dialogue) suddenly becomes very much an offensive 16th-century sexist colloquy.
The 1990 production with Freeman and Ullman did its subversion by making it clear that Kate went for Petruchio, not because he gaslighted her, but because she thought he was hot. Basically, the sex was fantastic, so she put up with his nonsense. But that version also strongly implied that Kate was in on the bet — that her speech at the end was bullshit, done entirely to help Petruchio win the bet and win money for both of them.
That doesn’t really fit with this version — instead, Jumbo gives the speech straight, and the audience is totally squirming in their seats at this horseshit. And then the beauty pageant element (forgotten since the very opening of the play) kicks back in, with Kate being given the tiara and the sash and the flowers–
–and then she has a psychotic break, crying out, “What the fuck is this?” and going batshit, before being carried off, the queendom hastily given to Bianca instead. Then the whole cast comes back onstage (Jumbo now in a t-shirt with the word “SHREW” on the front) and they all do a rousing song-and-dance rendition of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.” It was an epic conclusion, a brilliant way to fuck-you the stupid speech. (And Gayle Rankin played Bianca as a spoiled beauty queen in any case, so that worked out nicely……)
Speaking as a lifelong male, I must say that the women who were playing men all did superlative work, utterly convincing as men. In fact, the only one I didn’t get a male vibe off of was Janet McTeer’s Petruchio, who came across more lesbian than male. Not that that was at all an issue, because the main thing McTeer brought to the table was that Petruchio was just as much of an outcast and just as impossible as Kate — the difference is that as a man, Petruchio being unpleasant and abusive is acceptable. In fact, McTeer’s Petruchio is more unpleasant than Kate (at various points, peeing in public, vomiting in public, abusing his servant physically, and just generally carrying on in an I-don’t-give-a-shit manner — to add to it, while all the other male characters wear 1940s-style suits, McTeer wears a flannel shirt and leather jacket, doing a proto-James Dean).
It takes a lot to get me to like a production of Shrew. Lloyd and the cast managed it.