A shrewd combination

4th April 2003 at 01:00
Issues about sexual politics are resolved when one of Shakespeare's most controversial plays is staged with its 17th-century reply. Aleks Sierz reports

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. The Tamer Tamed. Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

In the past 30 years The Taming of the Shrew has received a lot of bad press and is often derided by feminists as a sexist fantasy. Set in Italy, it is basically a comedy about marriage: a father who refuses to marry off his beautiful daughter Bianca until his "shrewish" daughter Kate has wed.

Bianca's suitors bet Petruchio that he cannot woo Kate. To win the money, Petruchio "tames" Kate by doing the opposite of what she expects, until she finally submits to his will.

Director Greg Doran says: "In a box office survey of the RSC over the past 16 years The Taming of the Shrew is the second most popular Shakespeare play. Audiences just love it, yet we tend to regard it as a deeply problematic play because of its sexual politics."

At the time, he says 17th-century audiences "must have been aware of the vigorous pamphlet war which discussed the role of women". It is clear that "men were paranoid about the changing power of women as they began to assert themselves. It's also a play about two misfits who don't fit into normal 17th-century society, but they discover each other. A key line in the play is when a minor character says: 'By this reckoning, he is more shrew than she', which raises the question of who is being tamed?" So "we have two people who by very unconventional means are learning to love each other. And that is what will give their relationship the strength to last."

For Doran, Petruchio is less a ringmaster than "a confused bloke playing by his wits", while Kate is a woman "whose dad loves her sister more than her".

Doran argues that "the only way for me to do The Taming of the Shrew is to put it together with The Tamer Tamed" - the 1611 play by John Fletcher which was a reply to Shakespeare. "That way we can watch Petruchio go into the second play and see his second wife Maria turn the tables on him. This also takes the pressure off staging the problematic Shrew by itself."

So audiences will have the chance to see both plays performed by the same company for the first time in 370 years.

Also, a completely different take on The Taming of the Shrew is offered by Barry Kyle's all-female version, which stars Kathryn Hunter as Kate and plays at Shakespeare's Globe in London, during August and September.

The Taming of the Shrew runs in rep with The Tamer Tamed from April 9 Box office: 0870 609 1110 www.rsc.org.uk Shakespeare's Globe Box office: 020 7401 9919www.shakespeares-globe.org

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