One of the joys of experiencing a Shakespearean play on stage rather than page is hearing the poetic beauty of the Bard’s language and expressions nuanced with articulations of human truth. It is initially startling, therefore, that Queensland Theatre’s Taming of the Shrew starts without words. In its opening scene, we are left long in their absence, with the air eventually filled instead with a “Puttin’ on the Ritz” character whistle that links to the production’s pre-show gramophone sounds. It’s a start that suits the story’s reappropriated setting of the silent movie era, circa 1920s. Movie billboards to the sides of the Bille Brown Theatre stage also set the context in time and sensibility in relation to the play’s feminist politics. And so things begin with glamorous starlet Bianca Minola (Claudia Ware) filming a Calamity-esque silent film, complete with humour-filled melodrama in interacting with her male co-stars, which we see played out as a jerky, black and white film projection.
Against this Italian silent film set backdrop, Shakespeare tropes are soon apparent too, with cross-dressing, confused identities, physical comedy, clowning and comic battles between the sexes featuring throughout the story of two sisters, one who wants to marry and the other who doesn’t. While multiple suitors are queuing to woo Baptista’s (John McNeill) enchanting, favoured, film star daughter, the modest Bianca, her outspoken older sister, Katharina (Anna McGahan), cannot attract even one. Thus, the movie mogul decrees that Bianca cannot be betrothed until her difficult elder sister is wed. Cue the arrival of assured Navy Captain Petruchio (Nicholas Brown), who is not bothered by tales of bold Katharina shrewish nature, considering it more challenge than obstacle.
The ensuring clash of wills leads to much metaphor-filled, witty banter, complete with imagery, emotion, drama and dynamic language as aviatrix Katharina asserts her strength and independence. Petruchio’s speech and actions of masculine confidence and strength are contrasted against the romantic clichés with which Lucentio (Patrick Jhanur) woos Bianca by tricking her father. This is a complex comedy, full of complicated conversations. Director Damien Ryan finds a wonderful rhythm in the language of the articulate adversaries’ relationship, alongside the violent bitterness of their banter towards alliance, symbolised by a shared physical cue to each other. With her strong will and feisty personality, this beautiful and intelligent Katharina is presented less of a problem and more a promise of great women to come.
It is always a challenge to find modern resonance from within a heritage work, let alone a problematic one such as William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. That Queensland Theatre has altered its title to lose its ‘The’ perhaps serves as illustration that the taming of Katharina is not necessarily as fait accompli as might be anticipated. Kate’s tart tongue is presented as a technique for her survival in a society in which she does not conform, however it also stresses the polarity between the sisters.
As the more traditional couple of Bianca and Lucentio, Ware and Jhanur are earnest in portrayals of their idealistic characters. As the formidable Katharina and Petruchio, McGahan and Brown are perfectly suited to their roles. Brown is a commanding stage presence in his Queensland Theatre debut. And McGahan brings the required spirit to the titular role of the shrewish Katharina. They are supported by a large cast, including many of Brisbane’s finest performers. As an ensemble, they combine for many memorable scenes, including on Petruchio’s ship (rather than his house in the country).
Adam Gardnir’s design is one of striking staging and works well with Jason Glenwright’s evocative lighting. All aspects of this production assist in crafting its feminist voice. In gender changes from the original text, Tania (Ellen Bailey) is a trailblazer in disguise as brother Lucentio, a shrew in the making herself. Barbara Lowing is imposing as their mother Vincentia. Disguises and costumes of all sorts mask true identities throughout, even in the case of Bianca, who is presented as the epitome of femininity in some fabulous costume pieces. It exploration of male dominance and control over women is cleverly delivered.
Taming of the Shrew is a big play of many ideas, as its almost three hour running time attests. It is also, however, a passionate production that offers modern audiences much to consider in terms of gender politics, along with some glamour, romance, laughter … and a plane.
Taming of the Shrew is showing at Queensland Theatre from May 8 – June 5
For more of Meredith Walker’s theatre reviews, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane.